The Schriftstellerin’s Stick

Saturday 5th July 2014. Thinking about the event at the Barbican centre the previous evening, I recall something about the interval. Myself and Ms C had ventured off together to use the toilets, and naturally had to split up when we reached them. The event wasn’t particularly female-heavy, yet outside the ladies there was a queue of a least a dozen women. Outside the gents, no queue whatsoever.

Riddled with guilt at this oversight in what is meant to be a modern building, I offered to escort Ms S into the gents to use one of the available cubicles there. She declined, but I like to think that had she agreed none of my fellow males would have protested. At such instances of self-evident inequality, sharing the Gents with women is surely the test of a true Gentleman. And if any of the men did protest, I would have flung my arms to the air and said like any good academic, ‘But sir, all gender is performativity! Go and read your Judith Butler! But wash your hands first.’

In my case, I often feel like a fraud having to declare a gender full stop, purely in order to use the loos. My fear is that once through the door firmly marked Gents, I will be questioned on my knowledge of football, cricket, cars, sharks, beards, and Jeremy Clarkson. And I will be found wanting.

* * *

I spend the afternoon picking up books on literary camp. At Birkbeck Library I find one of Brigid Brophy’s two studies of Aubrey Beardsley, plus Moe Meyer’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, which seems to have been a set text for a Birkbeck course in the past. The giveaway sign for this is seeing a whole batch of duplicate copies on the shelf. Then to Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street, to ask the staff about their own suggestions. I come away with Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, an example of contemporary Polish literary camp.

In Gordon Square I look at a new piece of public art. It’s one of fifty fibreglass ‘book benches’ which have been installed around the city, and which will stay there until the Autumn. They are a project by the National Literacy Trust, called ‘Books About Town’. Each sculpture is the size of a park bench. It is shaped to resemble a book lying open on its side, then painted to illustrate a particular book. Sometimes there is a connection with the location. Gordon Square was once the address of Virginia Woolf, and this particular bench depicts Clarissa and Septimus from Mrs Dalloway. The artist is Fiona Osborne from One Red Shoe, who also painted the Dorian Gray Olympic mascot sculpture in 2012. Her Septimus has a touch of Wildean beauty about him too: the archetype of the doomed boy.

I get into a conversation with a Woolf fan, Alison, who’s come to see the sculpture along with the dozen other benches in Bloomsbury (there’s a map online). She tells me that the bench celebrating Orwell’s 1984 has already been vandalised and is away for repairs, barely a week after it was installed. For a novel that champions acts of rebellion, this rather smacks of irony.

* * *

Monday 7th July 2014. To the Hammersmith Apollo for ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, a comedy benefit. It’s in aid of The People’s Assembly, which organises protests against the current government cuts. The evening has an old-fashioned left-wing activist feel to it, and is hosted by Kate Smurthwaite. She isn’t entirely joking when she kicks off the night with  ‘Let’s have a revolution!’ The acts are all pretty well known in the world of British stand-up: Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Francesca Martinez, Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Jen Brister, Stewart Lee, and Jo Brand. I’m impressed by Jason Manford: I’d always thought of him as more of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road laddish comic. But clearly his heart’s in the right place. Or in this case, the left place.

Stewart Lee opens his set with an excellent topical gag. It riffs on the most common thing people said after Rolf Harris’s conviction, while alluding to today’s rumours of a well-known Tory MP from the 1980s, who’s thought to be connected with various sexual allegations of his own. I’d better redact his name, in case.

‘I do hope [Dreary 80s Tory MP] hasn’t done anything bad. I’d hate to have my childhood memories of [Dreary 80s Tory MP] ruined.’

Mark Steel must be about as old as Jeremy Hardy – indeed I saw them both (and Jo Brand) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988. But where Mr Hardy jokes about the aging process, Mr Steel seems entirely unfettered by time. He has exactly the same manic energy he had in the 80s, running around the stage and spitting out his anti-UKIP rants with barely a pause for breath. I envy him for this, just as I envy him for his red velvet jacket.

On the tube home, I bump into Russell T. He’s just been to some dinner event with none other than Nigel Farage – the very man who was a butt of so many of the jokes at the Apollo. It transpires that Mr F really does like his drink, even when (as tonight) he dashes off to do a late night interview with LBC, several glasses of wine still sloshing away inside him. So all those photos of him holding a pint of beer are not just a pose after all.

* * *

Thursday 10th July 2014. In the afternoon: to the Prince Charles cinema for Bad Neighbours. It’s a broad Hollywood comedy. A thirty-ish couple with a house, proper jobs, and a new baby have their life made hell when a gaggle of noisy students move in next door. There’s some laboured gross-out humour which seems a bit old hat now, and it’s never clear who the film is meant for – former students who are settling down into parenthood, or current students who want that sort of humour now. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a witty enough comedy of manners tucked behind the slapstick. Rose Byrne in particular is superb as the new mother, who finds it hard to deliver the phrase ‘can you keep it down?’ in a way that won’t make her sound like a spoiler of fun. Which is, of course, impossible.

Then by way of contrast to the National Portrait Gallery, for Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. Somewhat fewer slapstick sight gags there. I suppose this represents the person I’ve grown to become – the sort of person who goes to a Virginia Woolf exhibition – and on the day it opens, too (I couldn’t wait). It’s quite busy, with a mix of all ages and genders. There are some shocks. The first exhibit is a large photograph of Woolf’s Tavistock Square flat in ruins, after it was bombed during WW2. In amongst the debris her fireplace can be seen intact, with its Vanessa Bell decorations exposed to the open sky. Then the show works in refreshing Orlando-esque time travel: the fireplace appears again in a Vogue article from the 1920s, then it’s straight back to her childhood, and then forward again into Bloomsbury, via lots of beautiful Hogarth Press first editions. I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of the 13-year-old Virginia, dressed in mourning for her mother.

At the other end of her life there’s the letters she left before her suicide (‘I feel certain I am going mad again…’), along with her walking stick, which she usually took everywhere. This was a message in itself. When Leonard Woolf came home and saw the stick left behind, he knew at once what had happened. Had she survived her depression she would have discovered that she’d escaped another fate too. There’s a copy of a Nazi wartime instruction book, listing the names of over two thousand British politicians and writers who were to be taken into ‘protective custody’ in the event of a German invasion. The book is open at the entry ‘Woolf, Virginia: Schriftstellerin’. Authoress.

***

Friday 11th July 2014. A journalist from Q magazine emails, asking if I’d like to be interviewed for an article about the ‘lost tribe’ of Romo. I decline politely. One reason is that I have enough trouble recollecting the specifics of the present (hence the diary), let alone those of the distant past. As it is, I spoke to a newspaper for a similar piece a few years ago, and winced at the dismissive agenda which my words were used to endorse (it was the equivalent of ‘Romo: mostly harmless’).

But my chief reason is really this. If I’m going to rake over those particular coals, I’d rather do so for a stand-alone article about Orlando, and not for another huddling of the band under the wider umbrella of Romo. I feel Orlando did good work, and it wasn’t just us who thought so at the time. We won two Singles of the Week in Melody Maker, plus we released an album which received 8 out of 10 from the NME. There’s modesty, and there’s arrogance, but then there’s also being fair to one’s achievements. Why shore up unfair narratives against your own work?


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Ludicrous Poppy Syndrome

Monday eve. To the Gallery at Stoke Newington Library, for a private view with performances. And free Pimms and nibbles, which helps. Suzi L there too.

The gallery is a white-walled village hall shape, with its own surprisingly in-tune piano. I take a fancy to various photographs by Beth Thorne, Francis Brooks and Karin Nilsson, plus a rather good painting of a moose by an artist whose name escapes me.

One woman there is disappointed that I’m not the rich art collector that she assumed I was, given the way I dress (white suit and silk scarf today, 28 degrees C). I’m disappointed I’m not a rich art collector either, frankly. Certainly the minute My Ship Comes In, I’ll spend the surplus on art, rather than classic cars or second homes. Thankfully Beth makes 60p postcards of her work (available from www.lilyfrancis.co.uk), which is really what all artists should do from the off. It’s not real art till it’s on a postcard.

The performers include Vicky Butterfly, in jaw-droppingly beautiful burlesque mode: red petals, dancer’s ribbon, Mercury wing headpieces, Salome beads and straps. Her backing music is a piano instrumental of the Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ I always tell people with knee-jerk prejudices about burlesque to go and see Vicky Butterfly first.

Also: an acoustic set from Harmony Boucher, a strikingly beautiful androgynous girl from Australia. Incredibly rich singing voice and stage presence. I happened to see her band a couple of weeks ago while I was running my club, Against Nature. They were playing the noisy indie night next door. Although I’m unlikely to enjoy indie bands these days, I have to admit they impressed me: colourful melodies, sparkling invention, infectious enthusiasm and self-belief. Only problem is their name: Bunny Come.

Still, after a while band names are upstaged by the band’s music, if it’s any good, and the name’s meaning dissolves away. I suppose Bunny Come is no less of a hindrance than Does It Offend You Yeah?, or indeed Selfish C***, both of whom managed to go places. Prefab Sprout are very much a wonderful band with an terrible name. As it is, it could be argued that all band names are embarrassing per se. Or, indeed, that all bands are embarrassing per se. So much about being in a band is just pulling off the appearance of confidence in the face of embarrassment. On paper, Keith Richards is a ludicrous man. U2 are ludicrous people. Anyone who does anything creative or gets on a stage is ludicrous. It’s Ludicrous Poppy Syndrome. The band I, Ludicrous had the most honest name in the history of music.

Completing the confidence over ludicrousness trick is an acoustic set from Kingfishers Catch Fire. William – also one of Beth Thorne’s photo models – on guitar and new member Hinako on tinkly piano. All very impressive in the Nick Drake & Kate Bush corner of things. They cover La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’, and make it sound like This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song To The Siren’. It’s that good. But covers always worry me. I go up to William afterwards and warn him of the dangers: do a cover version too well and it can make whole groups into one-hit novelty wonders. I think of Candyflip’s baggy take on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (WHY do they spring to mind?) or that one who did ‘Mad World’ by Tears For Fears. Him. Or them. Whoever it was. If they ever had any songs of their own, too bad. Filed away with the one song, the focus forever pulled. Happened with Orlando a little, too. We covered Bacharach & David’s ‘Reach Out For Me’ at a few gigs. Cue people coming up to us afterwards.

‘That ‘Reach Out For Me’… That’s the best song you’ve ever written!’


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Materials Of Faith

Regarding the Orlando reissue on iTunes, I now understand it’s only on iTunes UK, rather than iTunes USA or iTunes Elsewhere. So profuse apologies if people in other countries can’t buy it. I’m not sure what’s the best way around that, short of asking a UK friend to download it, burn it onto a CD, then put it in the post.

A collector writes:

I must hopefully enquire whether the iTunes availability of Passive Soul is likely to translate into a physical reissue at any time? This sort of thing has happened with a lot of reissues lately – first download-only, then later on CD.
I’d love to hear the unreleased material, but being so terribly sniffy about sound quality I can’t bear listening to MP3s, and anyway I much prefer to have an actual artefact, even if it’s largely a compilation of other artefacts that I already own. I enjoyed your “programme notes” and feel that with the addition of Tim’s comments these would make excellent sleevenotes if and when Orlando return to the shelves.

Well, what I do know is that Tim C says he’s setting up a MySpace archive of Orlando things. And that he’ll be writing his own sleeve notes there. The iTunes reissue is entirely down to him – all I did was say yes.

I think it’s unlikely that Passive Soul would be released again on an actual official CD. Then again, one does see ancient and obscure major label albums turning up on indie reissue and collector labels, such as Cherry Red or LTM.

But it’s one thing for an artist to hawk a brand new release to a label unsolicited, and quite another to hustle a reissue. I’d feel very uneasy about doing so. I couldn’t dare instigate the negotiations – the approaching, the rights, the licensing, the approval, not to mention all the convincing. Still, I would say yes if others made it actually happen, and all I had to do was, well, say yes.

The great thing about those aforementioned indie reissue labels is that they clearly believe in just putting the material out there, in the spirit of pure faith. A balm to both the curious and the collector. Rather than thinking ‘but will anyone buy it whose name I do not know?’


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Eliot & Orlando

I am sitting here as the direct result of Brian Blessed singing in a leotard 28 years ago.

The London Library’s new wing, TS Eliot House, opened this morning. As I came in at 9.30am, I was told by the staff that I’m the very first member to use it. The redevelopment is still very much ongoing: so far there’s just this Wifi enabled Temporary Reading Room, which looks out onto quiet little Mason’s Yard. It’s a view dominated by the White Cube gallery, that towering, slightly menacing sugar lump of the London art scene. But just one room in the new wing is enough to get me excited. Walking through the familiar old stacks of the main Library – Fiction, 2nd Floor – then stepping through a previously hidden door into the Eliot annexe, I’m breathless with anticipation. It might as well be a childhood birthday. What kind of a person gets excited over library annexes?

TS Eliot House has been named not just to honour the great poet and former Library President, but also to mark his widow Valerie’s gift of £2.5 million from his royalties. It’s the single largest donation to the Library, which exists without state funding. And of course, the lion’s share of Eliot royalties these days is not from sales of The Waste Land but from the enormously successful Lloyd-Webber musical Cats, based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. It opened in 1981 with Brian Blessed and Elaine Paige in the original cast of warbling felines, all decked out in furry leotards.

There’s also some new toilets in the Eliot block. Very modern and shiny, with a range of pretty multi-coloured floor tiles designed by the Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed. The lightbulb man. As I try the loos out, mindful of who paid for them, I think of that schoolboy anagram of the poet’s name: toilets.

More seriously, though, and as it’s the New Year and a time for resolutions and self-reflection, I muse on that famous line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:  ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ So arresting, so sad, and so sobering. How one’s life gets measured out one way or another whatever you do, and how you’d better make sure it’s measured in something you’re happy with. Or at least, don’t mind too much.

So for 2009, the plan is to try to take charge of the year, rather than just let the year happen. I won’t say yes to doing something out of sheer politeness any more. I spent too much of 2008 agreeing to things, only to find myself pacing Archway Road for weeks afterwards in a blind fury, scolding myself for committing to a project or booking I didn’t actually want to do, whether it was a DJ gig or a music gig, or a writing gig where I wasn’t in the least bit interested in the subject matter (and in the case of reviews, I’ve done more than enough for a CV anyway).

***

Something I have been asked to do recently is to talk about the Orlando album, Passive Soul. Thanks to Tim Chipping and his Herculean persistence, it’s now been given a digital reissue on iTunes, making it officially available for the first time in ten years. He also ensured the album comes topped up with all the b-sides from the same period. Including demos and a cover of the Kenickie track ‘Acetone’.

A quick Google reveals that the album often has a kind of flattering default opinion hovering about it, with people on message boards using it in arguments to show off their knowledge of Great Lost Albums Of The 90s. Which is fine by me, though obviously I’m biased. Regardless, it did pretty well with the proper critics on its release in 1997. NME gave the album 8/10, while Melody Maker included it in their Top 20 Albums Of The Year.

And at about 4AM on January 1st 2009, while staggering drunkenly outside the Boogaloo, I am stopped by a young couple.

‘Are you Dickon Edwards? We’re big Orlando fans…’

It’s the first time I’ve been recognised as Dickon From Orlando in years.

I’ve also just remembered that ‘Prufrock’ is half-quoted in an Orlando song, ‘Contained’ (‘In this life that is measured out / in bus stops and rain’).

Is it a sign of things coming together? Well, it’s a reminder I should write about the album.

Here’s the link to Passive Soul on iTunes:
http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewAlbum?i=299601661&id=299601510&s=143444

Tim wants to know how I feel about the songs now, particularly the lyrics. I’d quite like to know too. Let’s find out. Off we go with the iPod…

Furthest Point Away
Hah – this now makes me think of the Go Team, of all people… A case of throwing everything into the mix at once. Dexys, soul records, Spector bluster. Lyrically – the misanthropic socialist, wanting a revolution as long as it doesn’t mean talking to people – and ‘soul-cialist’, too. ‘A wink begets a sigh / you won’t pre-empt so why should I’ is pure Edwyn Collins verbose camp. Am I playing guitar on this one? Probably struggling if I am.

Just For A Second
Great pop song, forged by the producer of Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’. Definitely playing guitar on this one – weird, out of time chords strummed upside down. Fantastic vocal performance from Tim. ‘Through no real fault of your own / You were born with a withering tone / You’re out on the town / Making people impress you” is actually more Fosca than Orlando. Going out to impress or trying to impress people is one thing, MAKING others impress YOU is a less expected line. So I’m showing off  on the lyrics front with little bits of wordplay and arch reversal, at the risk of losing the listener.

Nature’s Hated
Prefer the more raw demo version (included with the reissue) but only slightly. Excellent contrast to ‘Furthest Point’ in the arrangement, as it lets the song breathe. The self-pitying in the words grates with me now. Very much a younger Dickon’s lyric. I’m no less free from bouts of feeling sorry for myself these days, but back then even my miserableness had a certain naïve charm. I envy his youth – what right has he to moan with skin that good?

On Dry Land
Never cared for this at the time. Probably out of vanity: I just supplied the words while Tim came up with the music entirely separately (no idea how to play it myself), but today it sounds right up my street…The kind of record I’d track down if it wasn’t by a band I was in. Brilliant stuff. A real 70s musical feel to the music. Stephen Schwartz, A Chorus Line, Paul Williams…

Contained
Okay, this is pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever helped to make. Please, please, download this if you download any one Orlando track. No false modesty here. A ton of influences (TS Eliot as mentioned, but also Billy Bragg, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, The Beatles’ ‘For No One’, The Style Council, Jimmy Webb). Tim sings his heart out, I actually play the guitar without falling over.

Afraid Again
The album is just showing off now. Excellent songs, beautifully realised. I remember coming up with the main riff on guitar, and Tim transferred it to a synth. Very much the  sound of a band who are free from external fashions. Actually, it sounds a bit like Take That are NOW – dreamy, mature pop without being cloying.

Happily Unhappy
This completes the trilogy of ‘showing off’ songs. I came up with the chords in my Bristol bedsit when learning the guitar for the first time. I think I was trying to learn a Carpenters number, and ended up with this flowing ditty instead. Lyrics are a bit lazy – apart from the bit about thinking too much all the time. That’s actually quite a strange thing to hear in a pop song. Of course, that’s the narrator’s dilemma – his mind is out of sync with his heart, and he can’t even relax his own words into the simple language of a ballad.

Don’t Sleep Alone
A rather raunchy sentiment by my standards… Lyrics are rather like late Abba, in that aloof and disdainful way of commenting on a relationship, or the want of one. Fabulous brass solo. Anyone got Mark Ronson’s phone number? Nods to Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ in the lyrics towards the end.

Save Yourself
Very much Late Orlando. Thoroughly fed up with all things, and angry with it. Uneasy and personal listening for me – I can hear barbed remarks of the day set down here – from letters, from arguments.

Three Letters
The darkest and most selfish lyric I’ve written, brilliantly arranged by Tim into a desolate torch song turn. Gripping, cathartic.

Here, So Find Me
The one with the big orchestra, Tim outdoing McAlmont & Butler. My position in the band at this point was pretty much faxing lyrics to the studio then going back to bed. Lyrics are about walking the most dangerous possible streets on purpose – hoping to be mugged or worse, purely to get some kind of human contact. Proper orchestration rather than just turning the keyboard bits into strings. Closing piano is sublime.

Hero
The secret track. A cover of the Shelley track from the Sarah Records EP. A surprise from Tim to me.

And of the B-sides:

Something To Write Home About
A very shy song, very proudly sung by Tim. KG RIP.

Fatal
Orlando do TLC-style R&B. Pretty damn well, really. No, really! Lyrics are a bit unwieldy. Sorry, Tim.

Up Against It
I absolutely adore this one. So beautifully realised and performed. Lyrics are possibly a bit too overwrought. And that’s coming from me.

Someday Soon
A favourite lyric: ‘I wish I was a girl / Because you’re only nice to girls…’ Imagine the likes of Oasis singing that! I do, nightly. Should be ‘were a girl’ if you’re a stickler for formal grammar. But ‘I wish I was…’ sounds better here.

You’ve Got The Answer Wrong
Oh god – I’ve just remember this is actually a song I wrote for the Queercore punk band The Children’s Hour. Transformed and vastly improved into this well-dressed cocktail jazz setting. Perfect for El Records.

A Life’s Aside
I’m very fond of this one. It’s rather beautifully strange and otherworldly and woozy.

All in all, Orlando were a pretty varied band. And indeed, invariably pretty. We were restless, fearless, luckless and, sadly for us, commercially hopeless. But never pointless.


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