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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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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