Unselfing

I find a couple of old photos of myself online, and rather like them. One (at poor resolution) is of myself singing back-up with Fosca’s Kate Dornan, while onstage with Bid’s group Scarlet’s Well, sometime in the mid-2000s. The venue is the Spitz in Spitalfields Market, London, now no longer there.

The other is from 2008, in my old room at Highgate. It’s taken by Jamie McLeod, capturing me in bedsit dandy mode. I rarely smoke cigarettes today.

Tuesday 5th February 2019. To the British Library to appear as part of a panel discussion hosted by Travis Elborough, Diaries – Lives and Times. The other guests are Simon Garfield, Virginia Ironside and Anita Sethi. The five of us are seated on a stage in an auditorium, in a separate building which, despite being physically part of the same gently utopian mass as the British Library itself, is accessed via a separate entrance in the courtyard. This event is accompanied by a live transcription on a screen, much like one has these days on TV news channels. Inevitably, ‘diary’ appears on the screen at least once as ‘diarrhoea’.

Mr G discusses his fat book of mid-century diaries, A Notable Woman. Ms Ironside’s anecdotes about Robert Maxwell at the Daily Mirror are pleasingly vicious: she says he used to enjoy firing staff in front of visitors, while giving tours of the Mirror offices. I like the title of one of her books about growing old: No! I Don’t Want To Join A Bookclub.

For my part, I mention that it’s the centenary of a cult diary, Journal of a Disappointed Man by the ailing WNP Barbellion. I also find myself demonstrating how diaries tend to leave things unsaid between the lines, sometimes unconsciously, and use my own as an example. A jokey entry from 1999 about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is now, I can see, an allusion to a boyfriend I was seeing at the time, who was a fan of the films. Back then, I remarked how there was a minor character in the film called Yarael Poof, and how I found that childishly amusing. And clearly I still do.

Afterwards for drinks at a pleasant pub nearby, the Skinners Arms, recommended by the British Library staff. I invite along Max, a young fan of my work, such as it is, who’s come up to London specifically to see me. They’re non-binary, even wearing a badge which states their pronouns as ‘they/them’. Since discovering me, they’ve sought out the Orlando and Fosca records, some of which were made before Max was born.

Being on a stage again after so long, and indeed being able to inspire young people again, rather buoys my sense of usefulness. My concern now is that I am still billed as a musician, even though I’ve not made music for ten years, being these days more interested in books and prose. Clearly I need to hurry up and get some books out of my own.

**

Wednesday 6 February 2019. I’m working on a new revision of my PhD funding proposal, allowed as I am to do so for a third and final time, after been turned down in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile I receive a rejection email from a conference in Princeton. The euphemism is ‘we are unable to find room for your paper’. I think I’d prefer ‘we didn’t care for it’, or even ‘it’s rubbish’; that would at least be more honest. There is no feedback attached to refusals from conferences, so exactly what I’ve done wrong, or not well enough, I’ll never know.

Still, as my supervisors remind me, I have a ready-made abstract to use for another time. And so, licking my bruises, I stagger on. I’m beginning to understand why so many academics throw in the towel and get proper jobs.

**

A useful note to all tutors and editors, from bitter experience. When giving feedback in which you tell the writer or student they ‘need to say more about X’, always follow with ‘you can afford to say LESS about Y’. Otherwise, you’ve plunged them into the terror of fathoming which bits can be cut to make room within the word count, at the risk of making the piece more skeletal rather than concise. No one wants that.

‘Kill your darlings’ is only a useful tip if it is clear which bits are the surplus darlings in question. For the writer, it’s often not clear. Better to offer Hobson’s choice rather than Sophie’s.

**

Saturday 9 February 2019. I do my first bit of peer reviewing, for my fellow PhD-er Katie S’s journal. This is for an essay by a non-English speaking student on the American activist and poet Wendy Trevino. The essay in question ticks the right boxes for the journal in terms of content, but the writer’s command of English grammar needs a fair amount of improvement. My problem is that my idea of good style is probably a step too far for many editors: I want all English prose to read like The Great Gatsby, even if it’s just the instructions for a microwave meal. But I also believe a certain amount of non-Englishness in the voice needs to be preserved, by way of national identity – which is the subject of the essay, after all. It’s not an easy task. Thankfully in this case I’m reviewing rather than editing, and am limited to making recommendations rather than hacking away with a red pen. I also end up buying the Trevino book, Cruel Fiction, so that’s surely a good thing on the part of the essay.

**

To the Barbican to see the film Can You Ever Forgive Me. Much has been made of Richard E Grant’s fine supporting performance, for which he was nominated for an Oscar; the lead performance by Melissa McCarthy is equally good. But I’m further delighted by a cameo by Justin Vivian Bond, whom I once saw in the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. Good to see the British comedy actress Dolly Wells, too, as a lonely book dealer. Her American accent is so perfect that it takes me a while to recognise her. 

**

15th February 2019. One effect of my late flowering education is to find myself using a pen to edit the articles in magazines.

**

23rd February 2019. To the British Library’s hidden auditorium again, this time to be in the audience. It’s an event to celebrate 40 years of the nearby bookshop Gay’s the Word. There’s a lot of lavender-coloured party balloons in the bar, a colour I prefer to the more typical rainbow flag; I agree with Hannah Gadsby that the latter is aesthetically ‘a bit busy’. Purple (and lavender, and mauve, and violet) is a more historical queer colour, dating back to the 1890s, which were sometimes called the Mauve Decade. Then there’s Firbank and his love of the colour, writing his novels in purple ink, and Brigid Brophy doing the same by way of tribute in the 1970s, the better to write her big mad book on Firbank, Prancing Novelist. Leila Kassir keeps me company, and points out how Uncle Monty in Withnail and I uses the colour as part of his antiquated gay lexicon: ‘He’s so mauve, we don’t know what he’s planning’.

Much of the event is, understandably, about gay books and gay writers. Neil McKenna recommends Angus Wilson’s No Laughing Matter, proving that Wilson is not quite as forgotten as I’d thought. The evening ends with readings by poets, including Richard Scott, whose collection Soho is, as they say, right up my street.

**

26th February 2019. I submit my application for funding. This time round the money has rather been dangled in front of me. Whereas previously I was simply told by email that I’d been declined, this time there’s a series of panels one has to please: first one for the Birkbeck English department, then one for the department’s parent ‘school’, being the School of Arts, then one for Birkbeck college overall. Now I’m up against about 170 other students from the London and South-East area, all of us competing for 56 scholarships.

I was given two further chances to revise my proposal, according to feedback from a couple of the panels. It feels like being nominated for an Oscar, then told you have to shoot parts of the film again, in order to give your performance more of a chance at winning.

What I find difficult is that this process is less about the work as it is about selling the work. It’s really PR, marketing, pitching. These are things I’ve always resented doing, despite my reputed vanity. It’s the same as a job interview, or writing a CV, arrogantly providing the answer to the question, ‘Why do you think you’re great?’ Deep down, I don’t think anyone should give me anything at all.

Still, I can’t pretend that being funded would not alter my mindset for the better. I hear back in late April.

**

28th February 2019. To Hackney’s Earth venue, two blocks away from my rented room in Dalston, off Stoke Newington High Street. Earth is a brand new arts venue, though the building is a former 1930s cinema, The Savoy, which became an ABC in the 1960s. I like the sense of layers of history, especially as the street outside cuts through in time to the first century AD. The Romans built the road to link London to York; the Saxons named it Earninga Straete – ‘Ermine Street’. Every day I step out onto this road and have a clear view south into the City, with the Gherkin in the distance.

All of which seems apt for the electronic recording artiste Gazelle Twin, given her demonic stage costume as part English jester, part football hooligan, with a red stocking mask, red and white tunic and tights, and a white baseball cap. ‘What is century is this?’ she sings in the opening track of Pastoral, her 2018 album about Englishness after Brexit. She performs that album tonight, and only that album, never breaking character. I realise that her look evokes the costumes of Leigh Bowery, particularly when he was in the ballet I am Curious Orange. Indeed, that ballet’s accompanying album by the Fall, I Am Kurious Oranj, has a track called ‘Jerusalem’, as does Pastoral. Mark E Smith left a gap in British music when he died; for me, Pastoral helps to fill it. 

**

Friday 1st March 2019. With Mum in town. We visit the ‘Unclaimed’ exhibition at the Barbican – an inspired look at aging and elders in Britain, presented as a lost property office. It’s now thought that half the current population could reach the age of a hundred. As Quentin Crisp put it when talking about being in his sixties, ‘medical science is so unkind’. Culture will have to change quite drastically: there’s now protests about literary awards which favour the young. ‘Emerging writers’ is preferred, instead of ‘young writers’.

**

Tuesday 5th March 2019. Read an excellent article in The Guardian by Emily Beater on dyspraxic students. Much of it rings true with me, especially having to read a sentence several times before the meaning sinks in, and how this affects self-confidence and career aspiration. It is still hard to convince people that dyspraxics are suitable for higher education, but the evidence proves that they can succeed and even win awards, if diagnosed and supported.   

**

Thursday 7th March 2019. A long stint in the Keynes Library at Gordon Square, starting with an in-department conference of papers by my fellow students, then finishing with a lecture by the visiting academic Zara Dinnen, on ‘userness’ in narratives. Her examples are, rather refreshingly, the plotlines of Batgirl comics. In a gritty 1990s incarnation, Batgirl became a wheelchair-bound computer hacker. More recently she was ‘rebooted’ as hip and wisecracking, with a memorable cover image of her taking a selfie, in full costume, in the mirror of a crowded women’s toilet. There’s so much that can be said about this single image: satire, gender, society, the gaze in comics and so on.

One of the students discusses her experience of organising a conference. When looking to hire guest speakers, she found something of a gender pay gap. All the male lecturers she approached quoted their usual fixed fee, even though they were aware this was a low-budget, student-run event. Whereas the female lecturers responded along the lines of, ‘How much can you afford?’ ‘Can you pay the Living Wage?’

**

Sunday 10th March 2019. A note to myself: Be more fearless. Be more tender. Be more kind.

This reminder is obvious, even glib. Yet without it a whole host of petty irritations and cruelties creep in to make a nest of the day.

**

Tuesday 12 March 2019. Ms May’s Brexit deal is kicked out of Parliament by 149 votes. I’ve definitely been rejected 149 times. Can I be Prime Minister?

**

Wednesday 13th March 2019. To the Burley Fisher Bookshop for a talk by Isabel Waidner and Joanna Walsh. The world of contemporary experimental fiction, including autofiction, fascinates me more than ever, and these writers are among those producing the best of it today.

**

Thursday 14th March 2019. To the Stratford East Picturehouse, right next to the Stratford East Theatre Royal, with its floating Joan Littlewood statue. I see a screening of two documentaries on an LGBT theme. Poshida (2015) is about the compromised lives of gay and trans people in Pakistan, and mixes a style of mainstream news reportage with a cinematic aesthetic. There’s a lot of questions asked in its short length, alongside beautiful imagery of the Faisal Mosque and the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. The director is Faizan Fiaz, who is British-Pakistani and now trans-masculine, and who once played bass in my band Fosca. According to Faizan in the Q&A afterwards, all of the interviewees have stuck with their Muslim faith.

The other film, DES!RE (2017), is a black and white ‘jazz meditation’ on butch and trans-masculine people in Britain, directed by the dapper Campbell X. I spot Derek Jarman’s Dungeness cottage used as a backdrop at one point: a reminder that Jarman’s tradition of queer DIY filmmaking is still continuing and still needed.

The Q&A is more of a community gathering than a film discussion. Many of the audience speak up to thank the directors for simply making them feel seen. Indeed, the English translation of Poshida is ‘hidden’. These are still lives that are different from the default, and so still tend to be less acknowledged. As Campbell X says tonight, these films say: ‘We were here. They can’t erase us’.

**

Tuesday 19th March. Blame the systems, not the humans.

**

21st March 2019. ‘We can’t be ordinary now because there isn’t the time.’  – Angela Carter, ‘Fools Are My Theme’, from her essay collection Shaking a Leg.

**

Friday 22 March 2019. Something of a crisis. After spending a large amount of time and energy writing a review of Music & Camp, a new book of academic essays, the editor at the magazine isn’t happy and wants me to rewrite it. And this is meant to be my specialist subject.

After much agonising, I tell the editor I’d rather ‘spike’ the piece instead, as in cancel it altogether. They’re sympathetic, and fill the space in the magazine okay without me. The world continues to turn. In the streets around me people are marching with blue pro-EU flag, in the hope of revoking the Brexit process. Perhaps some of that same spirit has leaked into my thoughts over my article.

After a series of setbacks in recent months, this one completely derails me. I sink into a fug of depression, questioning my ability to do anything much at all. The depression is ontological rather than existential. There’s never any risk of self-harming, because when it happens it feels like there is no self to harm in the first place. It is more of a paralysis state: a complete alienation from human systems, including the systems of reading and writing.

I think one problem is that when one is immersed in a subject at a PhD level, it can be difficult to shift between that mode and the more detached ‘general readership’ mode for journalism. This is clearly a separate skill that needs learning, but I’m already struggling how to write a PhD as it is.

I wonder if I am simply not cut out to write journalism. Or, more likely, not cut out to do both the PhD and journalism at this stage. It feels schizophrenic, even fraudulent. Which one is the ‘real’ me? I don’t do impressions.

With both types of writing, I resent the second-guessing aspect, that scent of desperation always between the lines: ‘Please let me fit in with other PhDs / other journalists!’. But I’m really aware that I don’t easily fit in anywhere.

I’d been heading for this moment for some time. Every task, including this diary, has felt more and more difficult, and my working speed has become slower and slower. I have a fantasy of putting the universe on pause so I can just get my breath back.

What to do? I remind myself of my achievements in recent years: 1st class BA, distinction MA, three prizes. This is not vanity, this is trying not to crumple into a heap.

**

Monday 25th March 2019. To the BFI Southbank for one of the special events in Flare, the London LGBT film festival. Trans Creative at the Movies is a panel discussion comprising clips from films. The five people on the panel, all of whom identify as transgender, each pick a film which spoke to their trans-ness when they were growing up, or, as in the case of Faizan Fiaz, when they were reflecting on their identity more recently. Faizan’s choice is a Bollywood film from 2013, Ram-Leela, seen when they were looking at Bollywood films for the first time. Despite being Anglo-Pakistani, or possibly because, Faizan was uninterested in Bollywood while growing up.

The clip in question is a colourful dance number in a city street, led by Ranveer Singh, a muscular beauty in that pumped-up Love Island fashion. Faizan points out how it’s the dozens of male dancers around Singh who are more interesting, with their rather more achievable-looking torsos.

Of the other panellists, Jamie Hale’s choice is on a similar theme of men among men, Lawrence of Arabia. Zorian Clayton chooses Big, Kate O’Donnell chooses Gypsy, and La John Joseph goes for Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

I’ve now realised that, with the revelation that Quentin Crisp explicitly declared himself as transgender in his last months, The Naked Civil Servant can now technically be classified as a trans-related film. And indeed, the 1992 film of Orlando can now be said to have a trans actor in its cast. 

**

Wednesday 27th March 2019. I glance at the Brexit mess in the news. It feels as if the nation is in one massive BDSM relationship where no one can remember the safe-word.

**

Friday 29th March 2019. Brexit protestors of either stripe are currently a daily sight on the streets of London. On the Mall I walk past a man brandishing a mass-produced pro-Brexit banner: ‘NO DEAL? NO PROBLEM!’. Underneath this in smaller letters are the words ‘Brexit means Brexit’. He’s white, in his sixties, with a Panama hat, blazer and a striped tie. If it wasn’t for the banner, I’d have said he was on his way back from watching cricket.

**

To the BFI Southbank for another screening in the Flare festival. United We Fan is a documentary about the fans who organise campaigns when their favourite TV series is cancelled. The oldest examples here are the Star Trek Trimbles, a married couple, now in their eighties. They’re credited with a letter-writing campaign which led to the original Star Trek returning for a third series.

The film then moves to the 1980s pressure group, Viewers For Quality Television, which campaigned not only to save a number of programmes from cancellation, such as Cagney and Lacey, but became a kind of index of well-made programmes. This was a time when TV was still thought to be a low quality, disposable medium de facto. The film brings us up to date with a young lesbian supporter of the recent series Person of Interest, which had a same-sex relationship among its storylines. When the series returned thanks to her online campaigning, however, one of the gay characters was killed off. Thankfully, this fan didn’t take after Kathy Bates in Misery, whose response was to imprison and torture the writer in question. Nevertheless, the hurt felt by fans when this is happens is real enough. The Person of Interest fan responded by dropping her support of the show altogether. It was soon cancelled for good.

All of which begs questions not just about the changing role of the fan, from consumer to consultant, but also the role of the writer, from trying to gain an audience, to trying to keep them satisfied. The Person of Interest creator protests, quite reasonably, that a gay character can’t not be killed off just because they’re gay and have gay fans. A story has to go somewhere; that’s what makes it a story. What some fans want is really a static loop. I think of the Stevie Smith poem ‘To An American Publisher’:

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You liked it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.

But of course, fans already do this. They re-watch or re-read their favourites again and again, and still it’s not enough. It’s there in Sherlock Holmes, killed off halfway through the stories by Conan Doyle, then brought back by popular demand. It’s the same with music fans, with reunion tours, jukebox musicals, tribute bands, and now the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody, a manifestly bad film that exists to make fans of the music happy. Re-playing the original songs a thousand times is still not enough. Fans want more, as long as it’s more of the same.

I’ve just found myself watching all of the first series of Russian Doll again. Do I want a second series? Hard to say.

**

Sunday 31st March 2019. To the Rio with Jennifer H for Out of Blue, the new Carol Morley film. It’s steeped in woozy originality, secretive and strange. I feel I need to see it again to appreciate it. It’s one of those.

**

Wednesday 3rd April 2019. With Jon S to the Odeon Tottenham Court Road for Us, a horror-thriller by the man behind Get Out.There is a theme about America and oppressed selves, personified by sinister doppelgangers in red boiler suits. It’s tempting to ask questions about the logic of the plot, which, like the end of Get Out, dips jarringly into realism after what seems to be a lot of allegory.

There’s a final twist which forces the audience to rethink the meaning of everything that’s gone before. I’m not sure that’s fair on the audience, or indeed fair on the rest of Us. By that point the film has already delivered a rich parade of symbolism, striking visuals, thrills, terrors, and ideas. A plot twist undermines those achievements, as it forces the audience to make one reading only. Whereas an inscrutable film like Out of Blue may make demands on its viewers, but the bond of trust is never in question.

If Us becomes a classic, it will be because of everything in the film except the twist ending. The same, after all, became true about Citizen Kane.

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