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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Something Where There Should Be Nothing

Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity:  ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.

I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.

So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’  I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.

***

How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.

(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)

***

For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.

***

12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.

Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.

***

13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.

 

***

15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.

There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.

This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.

Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.

The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.

I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.

Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.

I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.

***

16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.

***

18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.

***

20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.

***

22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.

24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.

English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.

***

25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.

28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.

31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.

***

Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.

One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3.  In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.

Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.

We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.

***

Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.

***

Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.

A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.

***

Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.

***

Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.

Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.

***

Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.

***

Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.

***

Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.

***

Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).

A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.

***

Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:

‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.

***

Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.

***

Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:

‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’

***

Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.

Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.

Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.

Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.

Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.

There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.

I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.

Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).

In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.

Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.

Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.

***

Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.

***

Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.

***

Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.

There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.

Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.

***

Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do  some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.

Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins

***

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Snogging At The Packed Lunch Panopticon

Friday 28th February 2014

I see the dentist about my ongoing jaw aches. He’s now convinced I am grinding my teeth in my sleep, even though there are no signs of wear. It’s the muscles that have been taking all the punishment, he thinks. But it’s also a condition triggered by anxiety. I have to admit that the problem has been clearing up as more time passes since Dad’s funeral. I never seem to take anxiety as a physical problem seriously, yet clearly it’s something I’m prone to. The dentist has ordered a bite guard, which I’ll have to wear in my sleep.

* * *

I’m reading Savage Messiah, Laura Oldfield’s Ford experimental montage of art, photography, collages and text on early 21st century London.  The introduction by Mark Fisher is dated 2011, yet it’s already become a historical relic. There are references to the widespread dread of the then-forthcoming 2012 Olympics. As it turned out, many Londoners actually enjoyed the Games (often despite themselves) and now think of them fondly. Fisher also alludes to London civil disobedience of the past, such as the 1980s riots, as something very much confined to the past. This specifically dates his piece to early 2011, as there’s no doubt that the riots of later that year would have warranted a mention. Likewise the Occupy protests, with the camp outside St Paul’s.

What stands out most, however, is his mention of 2012 as the alleged end of the world, according to the Mayans. Fisher supplies this information as if it’s barely known at all. In 2014, after all the Mayan discussion during 2012 itself (and the disaster movie, 2012), the reader is rather more likely to be aware of it. In fact, it was Ms Ford who became a kind of anarcho-punk Mayan, with her drawings of riot police now steeped in pre-2011 prescience.

One can argue that all published writing is diary writing of a kind, because as time goes on the writing becomes more attached to its own moment.

* * *

Saturday 1st March 2014

I notice how mobile phones have changed architecture.  The modern British Library in St Pancras was only opened in 1998, yet parts of it are already ruins of their original purpose. In the basement, there’s a row of booths designed for payphones. Today the phones are all stripped out, though the direction signs for them are still in place (a sign pointing to an empty space always unnerves me). Any Luddite soul who wants to make a call and doesn’t have a charged-up mobile is directed to St Pancras station next door, where working payphones can still be found.

Today, though, the Library’s empty phone booths have come into new use. The building’s foyer is hosting some science-based activities for toddlers (fun with soap bubbles and so on). As a result, the old phone booths have become a temporary baby buggy park. Each pushchair fits the booth space perfectly.

* * *

On a similar note, I’m curious to see that printed phone directories still exist, though only just. This week the latest Thomson’s directory arrives. Phone directories were once thought of as hefty and thick volumes, destined to be torn in two by circus strongmen. Today the Thomson’s directory is a slim A5 affair. Barely a book at all. Even I could tear it in half.

* * *

Monday 3rd March 2014

The British Library’s café, with its free Wifi and lack of piped music, is now so popular during the day that I have given up using it during my research breaks. Hundreds of people are there every weekday now, all at their laptops, filling every possible seat and table, and seemingly there all day. Many are happy to sit on the floor, typing away in the fluff and dirt. I’m happy that so many have this blissful, office-free life, while resenting that there’s no room for me. Still, other cafes are available, and I have no problem in finding a Reading Room seat to do my college research, which is really what I’m there for.

In today’s tea break I do find a mostly empty seating area, the outdoor balcony grove high up on the third floor. It’s a circular space, with a single continuous bench around the circumference, so sitting there one feels watched by everyone else. It’s a kind of panopticon for packed lunches.

Although there are plenty of places to sit down, the only other people there are a young couple, snogging away. So instantly I have to perform the self-conscious role of Embarrassed Lone Person Entering a Space Claimed By Others. I walk around trying hard not to make eye contact with them, and look out through the vines at the view over the back of St Pancras, as if to suggest that is what I have come for. But I hear their lips smacking away, and feel impossibly self-conscious. I go back inside, trying to act as I have satisfied my curiosity of the view.

If there were other lone persons there too, it would be okay – I would have reinforcements. But when a public space contains one lone person and one couple (or a group), a heightened awareness descends. Or at least, it does with me.

Back inside to the safety of the crowded café  – where I can’t find a seat.

* * *

Wednesday 5th March 2014

This week I’m studying the sci-fi writer Charles Stross’s Accelerando, for my 21st Century Fiction class. Obligingly, Mr Stross is also in the news today, over something that must seem like science fiction to people of the past: a heated argument in a virtual reality space. He was one of the writers cited in a Twitter controversy, about whether or not Jonathan Ross should host the Hugo Awards for science fiction. The online fuss resulted in Ross stepping down from the job, while his wife left Twitter for good.

Mr Stross’s novel features humans uploading their minds to live in digital spaces, away from the shortcomings of the body. This is all very Utopian, but is some distance away from today. Right now there is the hybrid frustration of being able to communicate virtually, yet still being dependent on a body that keeps you apart physically. I think this must be one reason why people can get so angry so quickly on social media: they are there, yet not there. It’s hard to imagine the same degree of anger happening if the conversations were carried out in person.

I feel relieved at not being sucked into these sort of spiralling social media arguments, but I also feel strangely left out too. Even a fight is a party of a kind.


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