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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How To Be Punk And Camp

Friday 28 September 2018. Further to my wistful renaming of the DLR line as the Delightful Little Railway, my friend Miriam gets in touch with her own interpretation. She thinks of it as the Dave Lee Roth.

Mum is in London. We have lunch in the Stratford Palace of Glittering Delights, otherwise known as the Westfield shopping centre. The place is pure postmodern excess: too many floors of too many shops. Though at least it’s above ground, unlike the underground mall at Canary Wharf, which is clearly modelled on the Hell of Beckford’s Vathek.

Whoever hires waiters at Wagamama’s has a thing for muscular young men. It seems unlikely that a Love Island six pack is the basic requirement for serving pad thai, but it certainly helps with one’s digestion.

In the nineteenth century, the department stores in London were spaces that women could feel safe inside, walking about by themselves. (Source: Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping For Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (2000)). Malls these days are also safe spaces environmentally: safe from traffic and pollution. But the main attraction is the comfort of global brands. Here they are arranged in such proliferation, the experience mimics online shopping. The paradox of a non-place like Westfield is that it makes shoppers feel entirely at home.

**

Tuesday 2 October 2018. Learned today: Woolf’s Orlando was labelled as ‘camp’ in the mid-1960s, thanks to the articles responding to Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’. Here’s Thomas Meehan in the New York Times Magazine, 21 March 1965 (p. 30):

‘The favourite parlor game of New York’s intellectual set this winter has been to label those things that are Camp and those that are not Camp. Moreover, finding nuances within nuances, they have now divided Camp into high Camp (e.g., Virginia Woolf’s Orlando), middle Camp (Winnie the Pooh), low Camp (Batman comic books), intentional Camp (Barbra Streisand), unintentional Camp (Lana Turner in Love Has Many Faces), active Camp (dancing at the Dom), passive Camp (sitting through seven straight days of the Bette Davis film festival at the New Yorker Theater) and summer Camp (Cherry Grove).’

I look up ‘The Dom’ and ‘Cherry Grove’ – both are very New York references. The Dom was a trendy hangout for the Beats in St Mark’s Place, while Cherry Grove was, and still is, a summer beach resort on the nearby Fire Island, popular with gay men.

**

Monday 8 October 2018. I watch some of the new Doctor Who, with Jodie Whittaker. I’m intrigued that they’ve made one of the companions, Ryan, dyspraxic. Another character accuses him of blaming things on his dyspraxia, including an alien invasion. Both actions are understandable. The irritation of being diagnosed as dyspraxic should at least allow one to blame things on it. But of course this only makes others suspicious.

Evening: to the Rio with Ms Shanthi, to see A Star Is Born. For all the glamour of Lady Gaga, the film’s focus is really on the troubled masculinity of Bradley Cooper’s character, whose music here is a strange form of 90s grunge rock. One theme is the way gender works in showbusiness: Mr Cooper first sees Lady Gaga’s character when she’s performing as the token ‘real’ woman on a cabaret bill of drag queens. The film equally suggests that the bad behaviour of famous men might be due to the stresses of trying to be a ‘real’ man, whatever that may mean.

**

Tuesday 9 October 2018. History repeats itself. This week the media is full of articles about camp, and it’s New York’s fault once again. The Met Museum’s Costume Institute has announced that ‘Camp’ will be the theme of their 2019 exhibition and gala, and the 1964 Sontag essay will be the inspiration. Says the curator Andrew Bolton, ‘We are going through an extreme camp moment. Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.’ Even The Sun runs a story.

**

To the Rio to see Female Human Animal. This is an experimental thriller based loosely around the work of Leonora Carrington. It’s shot very cheaply, as if on an 1980s camcorder. There’s footage from a number of real life arty events. I’m nearly in the film myself: one scene is at a Last Tuesday Society event, at which I’m certain I DJ’d. Viktor Wynd’s Shop of Horrors is also in there, for which I’ve given guided tours. One of the cast is the artist Philippa Horan, who lived at the Boogaloo in Highgate for a while: I used to go to parties with her. At the screening I chat to the man in the seat next to mine. He turns out to be Brian Dillon, author of Essayism, which I read and enjoyed. He asks me about Momus.

The upshot of all this is that I feel I’m in the presence of a club I’m nearly part of, but not quite.

**

‘Disease is reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself’ – Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (1973).

I don’t have any serious health problems, but I do feel my body is starting to fall apart in various typically aging ways: more aches and pains, more slowness, more tiredness. But I’m also mindful of the reductive aspect of writing about them. The appeal of Derek Jarman’s diaries is the art he made despite being ill. One way of dealing with illness is embrace the outer world more forcefully.

I love the way Audre Lorde puts it:

‘I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my nose holes — everywhere. I’m going to go out like a f-ing meteor!’

**

Thursday 11 October 2018. I present a paper on Grant Richards, Ronald Firbank’s publisher, at the ‘Publishing Queer’ conference in Senate House Library. Richards, a monocled London dandy who put out books from the time of Wilde till the early 20th century, is often painted as ‘unscrupulous’, due to his financial unreliability. He sometimes asked untested authors to pay for the production costs themselves.

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth devotes a couple of paragraphs defending Richards. Like Firbank, she had to pay for some of the costs of her first book The Dark Tide (1923). But she credits Richards with starting her writing career, and for enabling more lasting happiness. When The Dark Tide came out, she received a fan letter from a reader, George Catlin. This turned into a correspondence, and then a courtship, and then marriage and children. One child was Shirley Williams, the Liberal MP. So it can be argued that just as Grant Richards gave us Ronald Firbank’s novels, alongside Joyce’s Dubliners and Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, he also gave us Dame Shirley Williams.

On the same theme of queer publishing, today happens to be Orlando Day. Charleston in Sussex is marking the anniversary of the book’s publication date, 11 October 1928, with a 9-hour reading of the whole novel, in which different readers take it in turns. I’d forgotten how the date is in the story too, marking the end of the narrative. Woolf must have added it when editing the final proofs. Indeed, these days many books appear on Amazon with a release date and even a cover, long before the text itself has been finished.

Something else that I forget about Orlando is that it was Woolf’s biggest selling book at the time. More so than Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Despite all the in-jokery between her and Vita Sackville-West, Orlando really connected with the public. It was something about that fantastical gender-shifting premise, combined with the camp tone she adopted from Lytton Strachey’s jokey biographies (which aren’t nearly as read as Orlando is now). With fantasy, there’s also an element of giving readers a new world to play in. This is especially valuable for those who feel the real world isn’t built for them.

**

Friday 12 October 2018. Today’s finding. In 1934 Winifred ‘South Riding‘ Holtby wrote to Vera Brittain. She mentions having Sean O’Casey’s little son Brian to tea, along with the 5-year-old daughter of her friend John Brophy. I realise that this must be an early appearance in the world of letters by Brigid Brophy. (Source: Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby & Vera Brittain (1960), p. 297).

**

‘He had the vaguely distraught air of a kitten that had seen visions’ – Firbank, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli.

**

Sunday 14 October 2018. A copy of the new book Bus Fare arrives. This is an anthology of bus-related writings, edited by Travis Elborough and published by the AA. My diary is in there, along with the bus-related passage in Mrs Dalloway, Amy Levy’s poem ‘Ballade of an Omnibus’ (which I love and which I wrote about for my BA), and a fascinating memoir of Matt Monro, the London bus driver turned pop singer. It’s the fourth book to use excerpts from my diary.

**

Thursday 18 October 2018. The Metro has a paparazzi photograph of the pop star Harry Styles, one of the hosts of next year’s Met Gala ball. He is caught in the ultimate transgressive embrace: holding a book. It is Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which includes ‘Notes on Camp’. This can be no bad thing. The headline is ‘Harry Styles Rocks Pink Beanie And Gets Deep With Susan Sontag Book As He Leaves Recording Studio’ (Metro 18 Oct 2018). I suppose it’s possible that Harry Styles’s fans might now discover Ronald Firbank, who is named twice in Sontag’s essay. Either that or pink beanies.

**

The OED announces that it is adding new adjectives to describe styles of filmmaking: ‘Wellesian’, ‘Capraesque’, ‘Tarantinoesque’. ‘Firbankian’ has been in the OED since 1972. One goal of my research is explain what ‘Firbankian’ may mean, and why it might be useful today. Perhaps Harry Styles now uses it.

**

Friday 19 October 2018. To the Gielgud Theatre with Minna Miller, to see the new revival of Company, the Sondheim musical, originally from 1970. The main character, Bobby, has been gender-switched into ‘Bobbie’. In the wake of Doctor Who this might at first smack of some sort of concession to a zeitgeist. In fact it fixes a lot of the problems of doing the original show as it was. The plight of a single thirty-something man is now a lot less interesting, whereas with a woman one only has to point to Bridget Jones and Sex and the City.

There’s also an Alice in Wonderland theme, suggesting that an adult woman navigating the world of relationships has to put up with a lot of Carroll-like absurdities: people talking at her rather than to her.

My favourite detail is the switching of the girlfriend who sings ‘Another Hundred People’ into a male English hipster, complete with beard and skinny jeans. When he ‘city-splains’ New York to her, the irony is much funnier. And yet there’s poignancy too, as sets of figures in subway trains are shown acting out ‘Another Hundred People’ behind him, suddenly dancing or embracing each other, before separating and returning to their detached reality once more. This could be irksome, but thanks to the inventive spirit of the production it’s properly moving.

**

Sunday 21 October 2018. I’m reading Audre Lorde. ‘When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from joining – I’m broadening the joining.’ (Sister Outsider, p. 11).

I’m fascinated with the way Lorde’s late 1970s writings use a capital B for ‘Black’, and a small ‘a’ for ‘america’. But I’m also surprised that the term ‘homophobia’ was in use in the late 1970s at all. I’d previously thought it appeared around the early 1990s, seeing it in films like Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) or in the titles of records like Chumbawamba’s Homophobia (1994), or the Senseless Things’ Homophobic Asshole (1992).

**

To the Rio to see Fahrenheit 11/9, the new documentary by Michael Moore. Mr Moore’s films no longer have the same ‘event’ feeling of Bowling for Columbine. On that film’s release, around 2002, people in London sat in the aisles of sold-out cinemas rather than miss out. Now, Mr Moore is an establishment figure himself. Unexpectedly, Barack Obama comes under fire, over not doing enough about a water pollution scandal. The overall message is that real hope lies with younger activists rather than the present run of politicians.

**

Tuesday 23 October 2018. That eternal writing dilemma: knowing I need to explain some points further, while realising that the whole piece is over the word limit as it is.  One always needs to say more, and always needs to say less.

**

Thursday 25 October 2018. To the Ivor Cutler exhibition at Goldsmiths CCA, reviewing for The Wire. Two 1970s easy chairs with headphones are set up as if to illustrate Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, one of his works. One set of headphones is connected to a vinyl turntable. The visitor is encouraged to put on Cutler’s LPs: Dandruff, Jammy Smears. There is a brand new LP here too: Gruts For Tea Again, a bootleg compilation on blue vinyl.

The exhibition next door involves some sort of noisy mechanical installation, the clunking and whirring of which leaks into the Cutler show. Cutler himself was a member of the Noise Abatement Society, so I wonder what he would have said about this.

**

To the Rio with Ewan Bruce for Bohemian Rhapsody, the dramatic film about the band Queen. We only go because Mandy sold out in the other screen.

Queen were one camp gay man who died and three Top Gear presenters who didn’t, and films are not made by the dead. This fact shapes the whole film.

The story is partly about sexuality, yet there’s no sex in it whatsoever. What it is full of is ludicrous inaccuracies, terrible impressions (apart from the Brian May actor, who is excellent), bad prosthetic teeth, and irksome attempts at pathos. But then, this is the band who gave the world ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. High Art was never going to be high on the list.

The film ends with an extended recreation of the Live Aid gig, even though the real version is available for free on YouTube. But presumably there are lots of people who pay to watch Queen tribute bands, so who I am to deny them? The fairest thing I can say is that this film is not unwatchable.

**

Friday 26 October 2018. Despite the vast choice of recorded music now available, high street shops in London still insist on imposing the same few songs on their customers. One example is ‘Broken Stones’, by Paul Weller, from the mid-1990s. I quite like the song, or at least I used to. Today ‘Broken Stones’ is playing in Boots in Piccadilly Circus, while I look for their least butch deodorant. Then when I queue to buy a coffee in Pret A Manger in Regent Street ‘Broken Stones’ is playing there too. I wonder how this happens, and who is responsible, and whether they were ever really loved as a child.

**

‘None but those whose courage is unquestionable can venture to be effeminate.’ – Ronald Firbank, Valmouth (1919).

**

Tuesday 30 October 2018. Halloween has changed. The ‘een’ part has been deemed unfit for consumer purpose, and one evening is not nearly enough. In London, people are on the streets in costumes night after night, particularly on the weekend before October 31st. Still, the upside of this pumpkin-based Lebensraum is that the retreating forces of Christmas have finally been pushed back into early November. Retailers have admitted that even they cannot put fake cobwebs and fake snow on the same windows at the same time. To everything there really is a season; even to seasons.

**

Thursday 1 November 2018. William Sitwell, the editor of the free food magazine at Waitrose, is under fire for being unkind about vegans. If I could get a message to him, I’d say: ‘Why didn’t your great-uncle Osbert check his facts when writing his 1929 memoir of Ronald Firbank? It’s a mess.’

It is, though. Osbert confuses Vainglory with Inclinations, the fool (They are pretty similar, though).

**

Friday 2 November 2018. In the British Library reading rooms, St Pancras. When I go to the desk to collect my books, I am recognised by one of the staffers. ‘Aren’t you on the cover of a queer studies book?’ He means Elisa Glick’s Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol.

Perhaps I should have denied this to make things more interesting: ‘But it really looks like you…!’ ‘I can’t see it myself’.

**

Saturday 3 November 2018. To the Rio for the London premiere of Something Left Behind, a documentary about the band The Wedding Present. It includes a Q &A with the singer, David Gedge. The film is more specific than I’d realised: it only covers the band’s first album, George Best, from 1987, as framed by footage of recent gigs, in which the current Wedding Present line-up play all the George Best songs in order. This event might sound as if it’s aimed at a very small audience, but the screening is so popular that the Rio opens up its balcony to provide extra tickets. I’ve been going to the cinema regularly for over a year, and this is the first time I’ve seen this happen.

Specialization is the way forward now: the more niche, the better. One can see the evidence in newsagents. The general music magazines like NME have withered away, while magazines on prog rock or metal or just David Bowie are thriving. It is all about recognising that, more than ever before, people want to feel less lonely.

**

Sunday 4 November 2018. An obituary in the Times about Derrick Sherwin, producer of Doctor Who in the late 1960s. ‘He became fed up with television and moved to Thailand where he worked as a bungee-jump proprietor’.

**

Tuesday 6 November 2018. I go on a binge-watch of Killing Eve, managing five episodes before finally going to bed. Senate House Library is a location once again, this time doubling as MI5. The only other TV series I’ve enjoyed as much as Killing Eve this year is Please Like Me. They both dare to mix comedy with serious situations, and they do it with an individual own sense of style.

**

Wednesday 7 November 2018. To the Old Vic with Katie Stone, to see Wise Children. This is Emma Rice’s version of the Angela Carter novel. I enjoy it immensely: the performers rattle through the story at high speed, throwing in song, dance, puppetry, colour and pantomime too – reminding me that Carter herself wrote an essay on the latter, ‘In Pantoland’. One of the themes of Wise Children is legitimacy, which Ms Rice maps onto the idea of South London being less ‘real’ than the rest of London, or indeed that The Old Vic is not as ‘proper’ a theatre as the venues in the West End or on the South Bank.

Perhaps one can compare Ms Rice’s productions to Baz Luhrmann’s films: that sense of using pop culture as a giddy dressing-up box. Like Luhrmann, she throws a parade of ideas at the audience at such a rate, that if one doesn’t please, there’ll be another along in a few seconds. And for all her liberties with the text, she still captures that core Carter tone.

Katie tells me that a copy of Woolf’s Orlando has a cameo in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the new Netflix series. It’s used to hint that the Susie character may be gay, non-binary, or trans (Episode 9 of Series 1, about 20 mins in). What interests me is how this very contemporary topic maps so well onto Woolf’s 90-year-old novel. I suppose it’s the non-binary aspect of Orlando that most appealed to me when I named my band in 1992. I have always felt like a not-man, but without wanting to be a woman either.

**

Sunday 11 November 2018: Whenever Noel Coward needed to go to the toilet, he would say: ‘I must telephone the Vatican’.

**

Tuesday 13 November 2018. I’m reading Brigid Brophy’s Reads, her book of essays from 1989. On the cover is the Fabritius painting The Goldfinch, the subject of one of her essays. More recently, the painting appeared on the cover of Donna Tartt’s hugely popular novel The Goldfinch. I wonder now if Ms Tartt was influenced by Brophy.

**

Wednesday 14 November 2018. One of those days when I go from wishing I was more like a normal person, to being grateful that I’m not. The working title for the novel I’m writing is The Beautiful and Weird.

**

Thursday 15 November 2018. The news has become such an unending spiral of Brexit-ity awfulness that I’m doing my best to avoid it full stop. Ideally, a 3-minute morning bulletin on a music station is all one needs. That way, the reminders of humanity at its worst (news) can be quickly compensated with reminders of humanity at its best (music).

**

Friday 16 November 2018: I think of the title for my chapter on theorising camp modernism: ‘Vile Bodies That Matter’.

**

Sunday 18 November 2018. To the Barbican Cinema 2 for Never Silent, a screening of two Audre Lorde-related films. One is The Edge of Each Other’s Battles, a documentary about a 1990 conference. The other is The Body of a Poet, from 1995, a more experimental film which is inspired by Lorde, but actually features the work of other poets. When the old 1990s Channel Four logo goes up at the end, I’m reminded how this sort of thing used to be synonymous with the channel: strange and quiet little arty films, just put on TV for the general good. Still, this screening is sold out, so perhaps that indicates what has happened. Art films now need to be sought out at cinema screenings like this rather than stumbled upon while flicking through channels on the TV.

There’s more art than ever before, but it’s also more fenced off and carefully ‘curated’. While this means one is more likely to find the sort of thing one already likes, it does mean being less likely to stumble upon works that you never realised might speak to you. Serendipity is becoming harder to find.

**

Saturday 24 November 2018. My landlady Ms K hosts a cheese and wine party in the shared kitchen. I wear the Sebastian Horsley silver velvet suit, if only because it’s good for getting conversations going. I wear a seahorse brooch for the same reason. Always wear something a stranger can remark upon. I usually explain that I’m trying to promote the seahorse as a symbol of unusual maleness (because seahorses – and their close relations, like the rather cruelly-named Weedy Sea Dragon – are the only species where the males give birth). One can then talk about seahorses, or the art of weirdness, or just favourite animals.

Even though most people at the party are at least forty, people hang around late into the night. But I weaken and go up to bed at about midnight. With alcohol, I’m getting more tired more easily. But the upside is that my stomach is stronger. Perhaps it’s my sterner sense of an aesthetic: I can’t pull off vomiting as a look.

**

Monday 26 November 2018. I hand in Chapter Two of my thesis to my supervisors. It’s far too long (20,000 words), and yet not long enough; many of the points need more development. But I had reached the stage where I found everything I’d researched to be interesting, and so was unable to know what to cut. Thankfully, this is what supervisors are for. There’s some irony here, too, as Firbank, my main subject, was obsessed with conciseness. His novels are barely a hundred and fifty pages long, but they’re highly polished and dense with their brevity. ‘Firbank has loaded every rift with ore’, said Edmund Wilson.

But there’s also the spirit of the times here, with everyone typing so, so much, and saying so, so little in the process. Everyone’s writing too much, and everyone’s not writing enough. Perhaps, as Quentin Crisp, said, more of us need ‘chains of our own making’.

**

Tuesday 27 November 2018. I see the film Widows with Jon S. Essentially a crime drama – a remake of the Lynda La Plante series from the 1980s, moved to contemporary Chicago and touching on modern issues of race, class, and gender. For all its artistic ambition (there’s one unexpected scene in which characters in a car are overheard yet not seen), the story is still rooted to the genre. It can’t quite bring itself to be as goofy as Killing Eve. Even the inept people in Widows are still gritty and cool, because the genre demands it. Perhaps I should visit Chicago myself, to prove that someone like me can even be allowed to exist there.

**

Wednesday 28 November 2018. To the Barbican for their current major exhibition, Modern Couples. It is the exhibition equivalent of Love Actually, partly because it crams a large number of different love stories into one space, but also because it’s trying to please as many people as possible. Just like Love Actually, the sheer amount of characters on display means there’s an inevitable loss of detail. Once one finishes reading all the captions, it’s closing time. All one can do is wolf as much down as possible and try not to feel overstuffed.

In fact, I’m reminded how Love Actually is itself the film equivalent of one of those boxes of assorted chocolates one gets at Christmas. The bits with Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy are the popular chocolates that always get eaten first, while the bit with Keira Knightly standing in her doorway while her husband’s friend serenades her with signs, and she doesn’t call the police, is the kind of small baffling jelly best left uneaten.

In Modern Couples everything is interesting: there’s just so much of it. The actual manuscript of Woolf’s Orlando is here, for one. There’s also a wonderful photo of Nancy Cunard leaning over a printing press while dressed in a dandyish dinner jacket and bow-tie.

The Barbican gallery shop sells novelty pairs of socks, illustrated with the faces of famous artists. They have punning names: ‘Sole-adore Dali’, ‘Frida Callus’, ‘Feetasso’, ‘David Sock-Knee’, ‘Vincent Van Toe’. The woman behind me in the queue is buying great fistfuls, or rather footfuls, of these nearly amusing items. Perhaps I need to do my own line. ‘Dickon Footwards’ is the best I can think of. Though that’s surely no worse than ‘Frida Callus’.

I buy a postcard and hand over some money to the young woman on the till. She says: ‘Oh, your hands are really soft!’ Buying a postcard in the Barbican shop is the closest someone like me comes to having a sex life.

**

Monday 3 December 2018. Acquiring two degrees in English literature has made me disproportionately intolerant of errors. I no longer just read: I scrutinise. This week I see an article in a mainstream newspaper, which uses this quotation: ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to – Dorothy Parker’.

I know that this is not the invention of Dorothy Parker at all. She did say it in an interview in 1956, but she pointed out it wasn’t her own:

‘I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.”’ (The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 (Canongate, 2007))

The quip is much older as it is. There is a version recorded by Alexander Pope in 1727, who in turn is quoting his friend ‘D.A.’ – Dr John Arbuthnot:

‘We may see the small value God has for Riches, by the People he gives them to.’ (Thoughts on Various Subjects (1727)).

**

Friday 7 December 2018. Pete Shelley, singer of the Buzzcocks, dies. I always loved the way  Orange Juice’s ‘Rip It Up’ suddenly references the Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’, quoting some of the lyrics (rhyming ‘dum-dum’ with ‘humdrum’), then copying the two-note guitar solo. This wasn’t just a tip of the hat but a declaration of affinity. Edwyn Collins and Pete Shelley both believed that arch humour could have its place in serious rock music.

In Pete Shelley’s case, his archness crosses over into bisexual camp: ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’ was written about a boyfriend. He became much more explicit with his solo synth-pop single, ‘Homosapien’. There’s a 1977 film clip in which he comments on the way punk rock gigs were being cancelled by local authorities. A local education committee spokesman had said that ‘punk rock is vile and obscene’ (Source: a news article in Sounds, 16 July 1977).

In the film Shelley says: ‘These people who are banning us, they’re saying that I’m vile and obscene.’ Then he smiles, widens his eyes, arches his eyebrows, and tilts his head: ‘Do I look vile and obscene?’

It’s the tilting of the head that does it, like a human italic. Firbank once said ‘I adore italics, don’t you?’ (Source: Siegfried Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey 1916-1920 (1945), p. 136).

Susan Sontag’s idea of camp also applies. For her, camp is ‘seeing everything in quotation marks’. In the clip, Pete Shelley uses his whole face as quotation marks, reframing the words ‘vile and obscene’ with a flirtatious Bet Lynch voice. It was this sort of thing that made him so easy to love. Though, as so often with camp, it also made him easy to underrate.

**

I keep thinking about an employer who once turned me down with the words ‘you have the wrong kind of experience’. Today, brooding on my lack of money, I feel punished for wanting to do different things in my life, as opposed to picking one thing at 18 and sticking to it. Though as Anthony Powell says, growing old in itself is ‘like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed’ (Powell, Temporary Kings (1973)).

But to be fair to myself, there is one form of work I have stuck at: this diary. On February 5th, I will be speaking at a British Library event about diaries in general:

https://www.bl.uk/events/diaries-lives-and-times

 

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