The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment

Tuesday 24 October 2017. I read an speech by Ali Smith on the present importance of the novel. ‘We’re all exiles, and the novel is one of our homes’. She quotes Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight (1937), on the immigrant experience: ‘The roofs that you see are not built for you’.

The trouble is, London’s new roofs are not built for many of the natives, either. I stare up at ‘FiftySevenEast’, the soaring new block by Dalston Kingsland station. I wonder what sort of people will live there. Anyone who badly needs a home full stop, like the growing number of beggars around the station? Anyone who’s lived in London for years? Anyone at all?

**

Wednesday 25 October 2017. An update to my earlier entry. I remembered how computer printer paper once came as ugly perforated scrolls, with dots along the sides and mysterious green stripes throughout. I’m now informed that this paper was commonly used to print tables of numbers, so each line was more readable when the alternate lines were striped green. Contrary to Genesis, in the beginning was the number.

I definitely recall seeing literary manuscripts on this sort of paper in the past. It’s so easy to forget about old ways which are not quite so old. Typewriters and Tippex did not graduate directly to today’s A4 print outs, but it somehow feels that they did.

Spend late morning and early afternoon in the London Library. Richard Canning’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Firbank’s Vainglory crams an impressive amount of research into a small space. I’m also fascinated that Professor Canning once performed in an Oxford student comedy team, the Seven Raymonds, along with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. There’s a connection there in terms of trying to do humour in a modernist way; Stewart Lee’s jazz-like repetition of whole phrases isn’t so far from Gertrude Stein.

I surprise myself by hitting this week’s PhD goal in terms of word count. And it’s only Wednesday. Then again, I did the same on the MA in the final weeks: hitting a state of despair at falling behind, but then following it with an intense burst of speeding up. New bouts of energy and concentration suddenly arrive, but from where? The reservoir of sheer panic, one supposes.

Evening: To Gordon Square for a seminar on writing abstracts for academic conferences. I’m given lots of feedback on my own tentative attempt at an abstract. It’s for a forthcoming conference in the nearby Senate House Library, on ‘Queer Publishing’. One thing I’ve noticed is that some professional scholars seem to submit clumsily written abstracts, confident that their name will get them included regardless. It’s difficult to imagine Zizek being unsuccessful with a submission. Academia, like everywhere else, has its celebrities. The subtext of this being, obviously, that I’d quite like to be one myself.

**

Thursday 26 October 2017. A Boots optician’s bill for £260. And that’s with the student discount. This is for ‘varifocal’ lenses. It seems my eyesight has taken a turn for the worse. The cheap option is carry two pairs of spectacles everywhere, one for reading, one for distance. Or I can fork out for the all-in-one varifocals. I don’t have a spare £260. What to do? Develop a squint?

Evening: To Gordon Square for two seminars. One is on critical theory, specifically Franco Moretti’s rather subjective but intriguing Graphs, Maps, Trees. Then there’s a lecture by the theatre scholar Aiofe Monks, on theatrical ‘virtuosity’ in relation to ‘bad art’.

We’re shown a video of a Michael Flatley show, in which the Irish dancer stages an interpretation of the Easter Rising through the medium of tap dance. It’s like the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ scene in The Producers, except that Flatley’s audience are cheering and applauding. My own audience, being PhDs in a classroom that once was Virginia Woolf’s house, are culturally rather closer to the Producers audience. We may not be shocked about the tastelessness, but we’re wincing and trying our best not to giggle.

This is one of the points of Dr Monks’s lecture. Being not just a scholar of theatrical forms but Irish herself, she talks about being a schoolgirl and watching Flatley’s star-making moment on TV in the early 90s, as in the ‘Riverdance’ interval act in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Back then, she says, this single TV appearance engendered a communal feeling of excitement for lovers of Irish culture and Irish dance the world over. Previously the dance style was purely amateur: now, overnight, it was professional, respected, and visible for the whole world.

But later on, and after gaining her education, Dr M went to see one of Mr Flatley’s Las Vegas-style shows, and found them trashy, ridiculous, even hilarious. Technically he’s impressive: no one would deny that he dances extremely well. It’s just everything else that irks: the corny production and the garish choice of themes. Such shows are, to an academic critic or to anyone possessing what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’, demonstrably Bad Art.

Except, of course, it’s also Successful Art, and that’s the problem for scholars. How can one explain why more fans of Irishness buy Michael Flatley tickets than they do copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s the same dilemma addressed by the critic Carl Wilson in his book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Wilson has to come to terms with the fact that Celine Dion (Bad Art) has sold more albums than most of the albums by the Beatles (Good Art). Wilson is Canadian, like Ms Dion, so there’s a conflict over national pride too.  I imagine that if one’s an expert on Irishness in contemporary theatre, Flatley is the tap-dancing elephant in the room.

I think of Edmund Wilson using the term ‘Bad Art’ to describe HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction in 1945. Lovecraft’s work is now considered to be culturally important and influential. Indeed, Dr M wonders tonight if her problem – and any scholar’s problem – is just one of not enough time having passed. Were Flatley performing in the 1850s, say, his work would be far easier to judge in a cultural and historical context, away from questions of taste and cultural capital and the things that scholars believe are canonically Good or Bad. And one wouldn’t feel such an ugly sense of snobbery. History dissolves snobbery.

**

Saturday 28 October 2017. Trying to catch up with the world of films, I see three in three days. Tonight it’s Daphne at the ICA. This is a low budget drama set in contemporary London, in which a young, red-haired, middle class woman mopes and sulks around the city in a rather nice blue coat. Sometimes she lies on a sofa and reads books by Slavoj Zizek, though she doesn’t know how to pronounce his name properly (and I’m not sure if the makers realise this). There is one plot of sorts, involving Daphne witnessing a stabbing in an off-license, along with another concerning her strained relationship with her mother, as played by Geraldine James. But the whole effect is disconnected and unsatisfying. No theme or plot seems to have been put through even a minimum level of development. It’s as if they’ve accidentally released a collection of first drafts as a finished film. I come away in troubleshooter mode like this, knowing that the film could have been improved, and wondering why it wasn’t. The answer, I suppose, is that the makers were happy with the end product, and that it’s just me. It’s funny how taste can engender loneliness.

**

Sunday 29 October 2017. A delicious veggie brunch at Dalston Superstore with Kath G. It’s nearly Halloween, and the drag queen on the DJ decks has managed to add some zombie make-up to her usual palimpsest of panstick. It’s more accomplished than the common look I saw on the Tube the previous night: people whose costumes solely consisted of half-hearted skull make-up. Hastily scrawled black lines on white faces. The bare, grumpy minimum. ‘Who have you come as? ‘The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment’.

A Twitter game doing the rounds: one calculates one’s ideal Halloween costume by taking one’s own greatest fear and making it into a sexy version. I nominate ‘Sexy Manila Envelope’.

Afternoon: to the Rio for The Ballad of Shirley Collins, a new documentary on the Sussex folk singer, now in her 80s and living in Lewes. She retired some years ago, a move triggered by the strange loss of her voice after the trauma of her husband leaving her (which sounds like a folk song in itself).

This is a very well-made and thoughtful film, and lets its choices of what to see do much of the narration. A case in point is a glimpse at an MBE in a box, made without comment, along with shots of various objects on Ms Collins’s bookshelves and mantelpieces. One object is a box set of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. Because of my interest in Firbank, I tend to think of Mapp and Lucia in the lineage of camp English literature. Benson is more traditional than Firbank, but they share a love of female characters speaking in arch and campy ways. In Shirley Collins’s case, though ,it’s probably the books’ association with Sussex that appeals: Benson’s fictional ‘Trilling’ is based on Rye.

**

Monday 30 October 2017. To the Rio for The Death Of Stalin. The directior is Armando Ianucci, who is now a big enough comedy name to attract other big names: Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs. The presence of Paul Whitehouse as one of the Russian ministers reminds me of a sketch in a recent Harry and Paul special, where Mr Enfield managed to play Alan Bennett as Stalin and Jim Broadbent as a Russian officer. The odd thing about The Death of Stalin is that it seems to be trying to not have a style at all, probably because it’s funded by French investors. The comedy is mainly in the madness of the historical facts and in its broad slapstick, rather than the language. There are little nods to the style of The Thick of It (government staffers swearing a lot), while Jason Isaac’s thick Northern English accent as the head of the Russian army is surely a purely British joke. But otherwise the emphasis is on making a funny film where the humour will translate internationally.

In this way, it’s closer to The Lobster than The Thick of It: a film in English which comes across as translated from a foreign script. I later discover that the source material is a French graphic novel, so that must be at least part of the reason. The film is worth it for the sight of a respected stage actor like Simon Russell Beale ramming his formidable stomach against Steve Buscemi’s, as part of a drunken argument. The scene is slapstick and silly, and well beneath the talents of either actor, but it’s still funny.

**

Tuesday 31st October 2017. Halloween. I welcome the way this utterly American festival – which first seem to percolate over here with the film E.T. – has forced London shops to mercifully put back their Christmas branding until November. However, I have to take a Canute-like stand in one respect: I can’t yet call chocolate bars ‘candy’.

**

Wednesday 1st November 2017. I read the late Peter Hall’s diary entry for this day in 1977. It was his trip to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood. The ceremony seems unchanged from the one  I witnessed in July 2008, for my mother’s MBE. Sir Peter lined up in the same long, unbroken parade of recipients in alphabetical order, all to meet the same royal who stands in the same spot for a full hour and half. The royal is somehow able to say something interesting and special to each one of over a hundred people. In his case it was the Queen Mother, managing this feat in her late seventies. Like me Sir Peter H also records, ungraciously, that ‘we should have been given a drink’.

**

Thursday 2nd November 2017. To Gordon Square for a seminar on bibliographies, followed by a lecture on speech acts in the age of slavery. The seminar refers to Umberto Eco’s 1977 book How To Write A Thesis. Eco’s book now works as a historical reminder of the way things used to be for PhDs, in the days before computers. He advises students to create a bibliography using alphabetical cards kept in a box file, and that they should take such a box with them every time they go to a library. At first it seems easy to scoff at this vision of the bulky awkwardness of the past, but then today’s students are not exactly unburdened either. Laptops are still fairly heavy, and hardback books and thick pads of paper are very much in use. It’s not uncommon to see huge backpacks and wheeled suitcases in a university library. Despite all the advances in digital convenience, people are still physically weighed down by their work. Why isn’t the future easier?

**

Friday 3rd November 2017. With Ms Shanthi to Mangal 2, one of the many likeable and unintimidating Turkish restaurants on the Kingsland Road (I am easily intimidated in restaurants). I’d heard that this is Gilbert and George’s regular haunt, though Shanthi says they only come here on Tuesdays, and that when they do they use the back entrance. O, the mythologies of artists! Minutes after we sit down, in comes the alliterative duo themselves, greyer these days but still very recognisable, the smaller one wearing a furry Russian hat, even though it’s quite mild. Through the front door too. Shanthi glances over at them as we eat, and afterwards swears that they didn’t speak a word to each other throughout.

A younger, long-haired man comes into the restaurant with a paperback ostentatiously protruding from his jeans pocket: Iron John: A Book About Men. Everyone’s discussing the Trouble With Men as it is, what with the news dominated by tales of sexual harassment.

Then to the Rio for a rather more edifying tale of male sexuality. Call Me By Your Name is a sun-kissed, understated film about sexual obsession, set in the Italian countryside in the early 80s (Ms S especially enjoys the use of the Psychedelic Furs). A skinny boy in his late teens becomes attracted to a (very) grown man in his twenties, though the desire is complicated. The younger actor is remarkable. He is devoted to the part not on a tiresomely overdone and ‘actorly’ level, but on a level of focus and diligence which makes one want to work harder oneself.  I suspect everyone who sees this film thinks of two scenes towards the end, one with a long speech from the boy’s father (a character not unlike Umberto Eco), and one based around a phone call which brings me to tears.

**

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Inelegant Acronyms

Thursday 28 September 2017. I must record that on the 20th July I contributed to a pop record. At least, I recorded some backing vocals for Tim Benton, he of the band Baxendale, in a Hornsey studio under a railway bridge. The song was called ‘Wild Swimming’. Mr B invited me to do it out of the blue, and I said yes.

It’s my first contribution to music since I stopped Fosca in 2009. I still have no interest in making new music myself just yet. How funny the way one’s passions wax and wane. Still, one silver lining of my failing to make money from music is that there’s no temptation to play my old songs in concert purely for the money.

My other excuse is a refusal of that common alibi: ‘being in bands was a phase I was going through: I’m more normal now’. I feel I’m more weird now. For now, other boxes await: book-shaped projects, experiments with language, ideas, narrative, the art of words. I look to my award from Birkbeck in 2015, for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’, and feel I owe it to myself to do something along those lines.

**

On a whim, I watch the late 70s Doctor Who serial The Invisible Enemy, with Tom Baker, as rented from iTunes. It’s the one that introduces K9, the robot dog who resembles an upturned wash basin on remote-controlled wheels; very slow wheels at that. And yet the TV-watching children of Britain loved him, and he became a regular character. All the special effects are shockingly primitive, needless to say. Yet there’s a certain cheapskate charm which makes the programme uniquely attractive now, in these glossy days of production values.

I wonder if it’s to do with the dressing-up box aspect: that instinctive need in childhood to tell a quick-moving story using whatever materials are to hand. In the case of The Invisible Enemy, even the story is cheap: a simple fusion of sci-fi cliches. It’s like a small child retelling a film using plastic figures. But there is one unique element: Tom Baker. He was already in a world of his own when he was propping up the bars of 70s Soho. It made perfect sense to cast him as a benign alien; someone who takes on his enemies armed with nothing but nerve.

I think I may have even been introduced to the word ‘bohemian’ in a Target Books description of Baker as the Doctor – I certainly had no interest in the Queen song. Like ‘camp’, I was too young to understand what ‘bohemian’ meant. Though I suspected it sort of meant an adult acting like a child – in a good way.

**

Friday 29 September 2017.  I read Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by the US writer Sarah Manguso. A curious short memoir, fragmentary and poetic. It concerns her keeping a diary over decades, from 1990 till today. Yet she does not quote a word of the actual diary.

From Manguso: ‘I use my landlady’s piano as a writing desk (p. 60)’. I’m starting to look particularly kindly on forty-something writers who live in rented accommodation.

**

Saturday 30 September 2017. I’ve always had clumsy and weak hands, something which has led to a lifelong resentment of cricketers. In recent years though my hands have become oddly worse for short amounts of time. A visit to a glamorous NHS neurologist a couple of years ago ruled out anything sinister. Glamorous, because I later found out that she was a consultant on the big film about Stephen Hawking. I was impressed with this implied proximity to Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, even though I would probably drop it.

No, my condition seems to be a mild but irritating combination of anxiety and dyspraxia, one that makes me into a kind of camp Incredible Hulk. At times of extreme stress, I become more limp-wristed.

I suppose I could blame this condition for my uselessness at DIY jobs. When I moved into the new room I bought a self-assembly bedside table for £15, from the Dalston branch of Argos. I felt right at home there, among the crazy, the shouting, the desperate, and the cheap.

Naturally, when I got the table home it did not lend itself to being assembled at all. And despite my careful scrutiny of the Cy Twombly-like hieroglyphics which the makers had the temerity to call instructions, I managed to nail one of the panels on upside down. The world of manual labour and I continue to look upon each other with mutual suspicion.

**

Sunday 1st October 2017. I’m writing a review of The Sparsholt Affair for the Birkbeck university website. It’s a commission by Joe Brooker for Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature (www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk). I discovered that a couple of the images in the novel are taken from real-life photographs or album sleeves, making my review something of a scoop. It’s my first piece of published academic writing.

**

Monday 2nd October 2017. More work on the Hollinghurst review. I also look over the handbook for the PhD course. I’ve found that whenever I mention I’m doing a PhD, some people have made little noises of mild awe. Indeed, when I did well at my BA a friend said: ‘I should think so too: BAs are for children.’ So I had to do an MA for that reason alone. Halfway through that I found myself increasingly curious about a PhD. If only because PhDs get more privileges in academia: special PC rooms, extra access at college libraries, and the sense of being, well, more grown up. Which for me is truly rare. I wonder how I’ll do.

**

Tuesday 3rd October 2017. I meet Laurence Hughes in the top floor bar of Waterstones Piccadilly. The windowed area has spectacular views of the London skyline, but it also has piped music. Laurence, who is older than me, is more sensitive about piped music. So we plump for the area away from the windows, losing the view but gaining freedom from the music.

I did a little research about this sort of thing for my MA. There’s some sociological evidence that the intolerance of piped music in public spaces increases with age. This is despite the way one’s hearing itself starts to decline – frequencies go missing, hearing aids beckon. One theory is that older people resent the loss of control over public space, which the piped music represents. It’s a glimmer of mortality: you are not in charge of this world after all, chum.

In cafes, the music may be designed to soothe customers, but it’s also designed to possess and impose the brand on a room, and so reminds the customers that they are at the company’s mercy. Younger people tend to mind this sort of thing a lot less, even if it’s other people’s music. The young are more keen to lap up brands, trends, fashionable haircuts, and of course, ideologies.

Perhaps as evidence of my aversion to trendy things, I get the new Ronald Blythe collection of Church Times columns, Forever Wormingford. It’s his last one: he’s retired from doing the weekly column at the age of 94. Calming prose, beautiful little mini-essays on Suffolk life, worthy of a much wider audience than the readers of a Christian newspaper. As in Akenfield, Blythe’s style favours the sudden comparing of moments across decades, or even centuries, presenting life as a palimpsest on all the lives that came and went before. The similarities are always more startling than the differences.

***

Thursday 5th October 2017. My PhD officially begins. Tonight at Gordon Square there’s an induction talk in the Keynes Library by Sue Wiseman, the course director. A handout with a list of all the new students and their projects goes around, and I’m slightly startled to see my name at the top. It’s alphabetical, and unusually for a diverse ‘cohort’ of twenty students, no one has a surname beginning with A, B, C, or D. So there I am at the start. Meaningless, really, but at this stage, with the fear creeping in about how serious it all is, and with my constant inner questions about whether I’ve made a good decision, I’ll take any good omen I can get.

This year’s English and Humanities intake seems a healthy mix: roughly equal genders, all ages, lots of different nationalities, and a good scattering of subject matter from medieval to contemporary, via steampunk, cyberpunk, and graphic novels. One student is doing fairy tales with Marina Warner: the best possible supervisor in the country for that topic. I chat to one student who is also an accomplished poet, Fran Lock.

**

Friday 6th October 2017. Today sees an induction lecture for the wider School of Arts students, as in not just my fellow English and Humanities researchers, but also their counterparts in History of Art, Film and Media, Languages, and The Arts more generally. The lecture is by Marina Warner, and is on curses and entreaties in storytelling.

Beforehand, I’m in St James’s Park looking at some sculptures by Sophie Ryder, which all seem very Marina Warner-esque: nude humans with animal heads dancing with giant dogs, or holding hands in a ring, like an out-take from The Wicker Man.

Spend some time – probably too much – reading about the current online goings on among the ‘alt-right’. Buzzfeed have published a long investigation into email exchanges by various journalists from the conservative website Breitbart, linking them with what appears to be actual white supremacists. The figure at the heart of the story is Milo Yiannopoulos, the British writer who saw a gap in the market left by Christopher Hitchens: a charismatic posh British man spouting opinions on American media despite a complete lack of qualifications. Except that Hitchens was at least more considered in his style: Milo Y is more like a camp internet troll, and one who has stolen my look, frankly.

**

Saturday 7th October 2017. To the Museum of London for a gig by The Fallen Women. It’s part of some sort of mini-festival themed around radical art. Like Joanne Joanne, the all-female tribute band who play Duran Duran songs, the Fallen Women are a mostly female band who play the songs of The Fall: ‘Hit the North’, ‘Victoria’, ‘Mr Pharmacist’, ‘Big New Prinz’ and so forth.

During the gig, three energetic little girls dance unexpectedly down the front. They can’t be older than eight. I presume they’re the untethered children of someone else here, though I like to think they just escaped and are on the run. They are invited onto the stage to do guest vocals on ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. Afterwards, while the band pack up, they ask the guitarist – my friend Charley Stone – if they can use the microphones. Charley points out that they’ve been switched off, because the DJ, Mr Doran from The Quietus, is now playing his set.

‘That doesn’t matter’, says one of the little girls. ‘We just want to show off our girl group moves’. And so they do, posing and dancing with the microphones.

**

Sunday 8th October 2017. I am sent a copy of Travis Elborough’s handsome new anthology, Our History of the 20th Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters. Once again, it includes extracts from my web diary, though just ones from 1997 to 2000. Much of the rest of the book is exclusive material: private diaries never before published. Mr E had asked me if I had kept a paper diary before 1997. I hadn’t, sadly: the novelty of the web format was one of the reasons I started.

At 9am I go to the V&A for Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. After the huge success of the David Bowie exhibition, the V&A have attempted something similar with the band behind Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The show has proven so popular that the museum has added tickets by opening throughout the night too: I could have gone at 4am in the morning.

So what does that say about Pink Floyd? I thought the band had rather more of a niche following than Bowie. In fact, a statistic I learn at the exhibition is that Dark Side alone sells 7000 copies every week, worldwide.

All kinds of theories suggest themselves. I wonder if it’s the band’s reputation for anonymity. Music usually divides people, so a lack of personality might mean there’s less to get in the way, and so less to dislike (one might say the same about Coldplay). Certainly Dark Side of the Moon was all about the ambience promised by the enigmatic sleeve, the triangular prism against the black background. Then there are the subjects of the song titles, which are so basic they must translate easily around the world: ‘Breathe’, ‘Time’, ‘Money’. Hardly niche topics. ‘Hey, I breathe too! I too have heard about money!’

What interests me, and what justifies this exhibition, is that they went through so many different phases, all of which involved highly visual and theatrical elements. One highlight is the row of face masks used in The Wall live show, as worn by a ‘surrogate band’ of extra musicians who open the concert. The idea played on the pitfalls of their own success: the concerts were now such a special-effects spectacle, with exploding jet planes, flying inflatable pigs, film projections, and huge grotesque puppets by Gerald Scarfe, the actual band members were secondary concerns. The mask idea is now rich in irony, given that the bassist Roger Waters, who was the band’s driving force in the 70s, tried to stop the other members using the name ‘Pink Floyd’ without him. He was proved wrong. Or rather, he didn’t listen to his own ideas.

They had one member with star quality, though: Syd Barrett. The band’s first incarnation, the late 1960s line-up with Barrett as frontman, was part of the London psychedelic club scene. Here, the V&A shows many of the gig posters of the time. These illustrated adverts have figures with swirling, distorted proportions rendered in a clear line style, not at all unlike the 1890s work of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it’s thought that the V&A’s 1966 Beardsley show directly influenced such art, and indeed there’s a Beardsley on display. This gives the new exhibition a nice sense of symmetry: echoes of influence returning home.

I take a bus into Piccadilly and get off at St James’s church. In the church grounds is an exhibition of sculptures by Emily Young, once the inspiration for the 60s Pink Floyd song ‘See Emily Play’. Here, one can.

**

Monday 9th October 2017. To the University of Surrey, in Guildford, for a symposium, New Perspectives on Alan Hollinghurst. Three papers are delivered, each speaker neatly representing one of the three academic books on Hollinghurst, all of which suddenly emerged, like buses, in the last few years. This is followed by a public interview with the author himself, tirelessly promoting The Sparsholt Affair. The interview is also in the university, but as part of the Guildford Literary Festival. Unusually, AH doesn’t mention Firbank, so I perk up at the end, mention my PhD, and get him to confirm that he’s writing the introduction for a new Picador edition of The Flower Beneath The Foot. The Sparsholt Affair makes the Top 10 bestseller list: there’s huge posters for it on the Tube.

Surrey university is a proper campus in the American sense: a self-contained town of glossy modernist buildings that takes a long bus ride to get around. I forget how many universities are like this, physically separate and bubble-like, rather than smuggled across a city in public squares and streets like my own, the University of London.

**

Tuesday 10th October 2017. To the Members’ Room in the London Library for an event concerning the second Travis Elborough book out this month, this one co-edited with Helen Gordon, Being A Writer. No one can say that Mr E is a slouch at the practice himself.

It’s a collection of quotes by notable authors: writerly anecdotes mixed with general advice on the craft, and all beautifully designed by the publisher, Frances Lincoln. There’s a quote by David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas one) that reminds me how expensive writing used to be before the net: the era of typewriters and Tippex, of old printers with holes down the side of the paper (which was striped with green for some reason), of bulky manuscripts photocopied and sent in the post. Today it’s harder to earn money from writing, but at least it’s cheaper to actually write.

**

Wednesday 11th October 2017. Evening: to Gordon Square for a meeting by a ‘collective’ of Birkbeck research students. One of the PhDs talks about how she transferred to Birkbeck halfway through her thesis, after her relationship with a supervisor broke down irrevocably. There were no other supervisors in the same field, so she had to move colleges altogether. It’s a good lesson in the importance of having the right supervisor, however good the reputation of the college.

Anyone who looks into doing a PhD usually hears a few horror stories on this subject: supervisors who forget their students even exist; supervisors who don’t reply to emails for months on end and need to be hunted down in the politest possible way; and neglected students who shrug and think they can submit their PhD without the supervisor’s input (and they usually come a cropper). One advantage of sticking with the same college for ‘the triple’ – BA, MA, PhD – is that my supervisor already knows what I’m like.

There’s a London diarist connection here. The definitive edition of Samuel Pepys’s diaries was edited by William Matthews (1905-1975), a specialist in British and American diaries. Matthews did ‘the triple’ at Birkbeck in the 1920s and 30s, before going on to a glittering academic career in the States, hoovering up awards as he went. Birkbeck’s English department honour his memory every year with the annual William Matthews lecture. So I like to think I’m ‘doing a William Matthews’, if only the first bit.

**

Sunday 15th October 2017. To the ‘Esquire Townhouse with Dior’ as it’s officially called. It’s both a pop-up members club and an arts festival, held at the plush building at 10 & 11 Carlton House Terrace, right behind the ICA. I’m here for yet another Alan Hollinghurst event, this time about the ten books that made him who he is. He omits Firbank in favour of, unexpectedly, The Lord of the Rings, which he loved as a teenager. It seems unlikely that AH will venture into writing fantasy novels any time soon. Then again, Kazuo Ishiguro’s last book, The Buried Giant, was just that, and they’ve just given him the Nobel Prize.

I say hello to Martin Wallace, who knows AH. The author himself recognises me from the Guildford talk, and asks me about the scope of my Firbank thesis. When I tell him it’s about the concept of camp modernism, he thinks for a moment then tells me it’s a very worthwhile line of research. I feel officially blessed.

**

Tuesday 17th October 2017. The London Review of Books has an excellent article by Jenny Turner on Kathy Acker, by way of the new biography by Chris Kraus. Ms Acker marketed the ink on her skin as much as she did the ink on her pages. It’s quite a common look now, but her tattoos and piercings were thought to be fairly daring and punkish in the 80s and 90s, even shocking.

As Ms Turner points out, there hadn’t really been a female version of the William Burroughs-style ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’ role before, and there hasn’t really been one since. Jeanette Winterson may have been spiky in her manner when she started out, but she was still part of the literary establishment; one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. According to this article, one of Acker’s books was accidentally printed with the last two chapters the wrong way around, and no one noticed. That’s one definition of the avant-garde.

I note that there’s an advert alongside the Acker piece for Stewart Lee’s current stand-up comedy show. It’s difficult to think of other comedians who might regard the LRB readership as their target audience. And yet I’m reminded that in 1981, when the LRB had photographic covers and a slightly more ‘Time Out’-y approach, they put Alexei Sayle on the front. This was to illustrate an article by the poet Ian Hamilton on the alternative comedy scene.

Since then the magazine hasn’t expected its readers to take much of an interest in comedy. I know this because in 2011, one LRB piece quoted a joke from Peep Show, but had to qualify this as ‘a Channel 4 sitcom’, rather than ‘the Channel 4 sitcom’. By this time it had been running for eight years, and was on its seventh series. Perhaps, given the Stewart Lee advert, things have changed. Or perhaps, in the same way Kathy Acker is described as an author who had fans ‘among people who didn’t usually buy books’, Lee is a comedian for people who don’t usually like comedy.

I admit I’ve always been intrigued by the way magazines second-guess their readers’ tastes, and so have to reach for the words ‘a’ or ‘called’ to qualify something, rather than a more flattering ‘the’. As in, ‘I was listening to a band called the Beatles’ (because you, the imagined reader, won’t have heard of them). Or ‘I was watching a film called Citizen Kane’. The practice is even more curious now, because it assumes the reader hasn’t got access to Google.

**

Wednesday 18th October 2017. To Birkbeck for a training session on archiving ‘intractable’ objects. I choose Firbankiana, a miniature book published in 1989 by the New York independent press Hanuman, who operated in the 80s and early 90s. The book is part of a quirky series on figures from avant-garde culture. Other subjects include Candy Darling, Burroughs, Richard Hell, and David Hockney. Quite collectable now. In preparing to talk about the Firbank book, I discover that Hanuman operated out of the Chelsea Hotel, and that the books were based on Indian prayer books, hence the idea of carrying about a little book of Burroughs or Firbank by way of demonstrating one’s  faith. Indeed, they hired the same prayer-book printers in Madras, who in turn used the same local fishermen to hand-stitch the pages together (Source: website for the Hanuman archive, University of Michigan Library). I wonder what the fishermen made of Candy Darling.

Thursday 19th October 2017. Library inductions for the new PhDs. We start with a tour of the historic Senate House Library, followed by a lesson on how to use their online catalogue. Then to Birkbeck’s more modern library next door, where we are taught about using the many electronic databases. I come away with my head swimming in inelegant acronyms. Like ‘PhD’, in fact.

Birkbeck Library has just refurbished its upper floor in Torrington Square. Over the summer they removed whole banks of shelving and replaced them with some fifty or so brand new study desks. The shelves are unlikely to be missed, as they contained ancient periodicals and directories. These materials are now in storage, so people can still request them. But one suspects they’re all digitised and available online.

This is very much a sign of the times. In Birkbeck there seems to be more students this year than ever before, despite all the reports of high fees and the difficulties in housing. Last year the free desks in the library ran out completely every day, with the peak time around 4pm. Some clichés about students being late risers never change. Meanwhile the back numbers of academic journals, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and directories have migrated to the electronic ether.

Libraries are now as much about spaces for bodies (and their laptops) as they are about spaces for books. For many students, a library’s key role is as a quiet, conducive and above all heated space in which to work at a laptop, away from the piped music of franchise cafes, and away from the unheatable shoebox that a student probably has to call a home.

But some of the old reference materials still manage to lurk among all the bodies and the backpacks. In Senate House today, while on the tour, I spy the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelves in its thick black hardbacks, all twenty volumes of it. I ask a librarian if anyone still consults these out-of-date tomes. ‘Probably hardly anyone, but we like to keep them there for nostalgia.’

 

***

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The Spare Apostle

Wednesday 17 May 2017. Once again, a life-changing event occurs in the gap between diary updates, one which eclipses everything else that happened. It’s like that science demonstration where a heavy ball is placed in the centre of a black rubber sheet. The sheet is meant to represent space, and everything else around the heavy ball bends and distorts around it. Something to do with how black holes work, I think. I wasn’t really paying attention.

On Friday, 12th May, after 23 years of renting the same room in Highgate, I was made homeless.

There had been a sighting of a proper omen on the way home. Actual entrails. Around 7pm I left Birkbeck library in Torrington Square, walked past SOAS and through Russell Square. When passing the students loafing outside SOAS, I always look out for Russell Brand, currently the college’s best known pupil. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks the neighbouring square is named after him.

At Russell Square tube station, I took the lift to the platforms. When the doors opened at platform level I had to step over a small red mess on the floor. On looking closer, I saw it was a trampled tube mouse.

In a lifetime of using the London Underground, this was the first time I’ve ever seen a mouse come a cropper of the system’s endless human stampede. Tube mice are usually very good at sensing movement, fleeing at top speed into holes in the walls that never quite seem large enough. But perhaps the areas by the overcrowded lifts at Russell Square are a special case. The hordes of visitors from the British Museum ignore all the Smart Tourist advice about travelling via Holborn, where there’s more space and escalators. Instead they pack Russell Square’s ancient and put-upon lifts to the brim, with their backpacks and wheeled suitcases and push chairs and coach parties from all four corners of the globe. When coming back via the lifts, the exodus is too much, it seems, for tube mice. As if the Elgin Marbles weren’t controversial enough.

On seeing the dead mouse, I thought of entrails, sacrifices, and omens. When I got home to Highgate half an hour later, and saw in the shared hallway that each tenant had been given a sealed envelope from the owners, I feared the worst.

It transpires that my landlady, the daughter of the original owner who died two years ago, has been hit with a huge inheritance tax bill for the house. Despite her mother’s wish to keep the house going for the sake of the tenants – her family are that rare thing in London, landlords who care more about humans than money – the tax people have given her no option but to throw the tenants out and sell the building. We haven’t been given a firm date yet, but it’s likely to be ‘around the end of July’.

Of course, I’m still dealing with the shockwaves of Tom’s death. I would indulge the superstitious and melodramatic side of myself (rarely far from the surface) and say these things always come in threes. That would then license my fear that something else life-altering is lurking around the corner. But in fact, something else happened before that.

In early April my application for a PhD scholarship at Birkbeck was declined. That’s the money which effectively pays people a modest but sustainable wage (£16k) for doing a PhD full-time. This year, Birkbeck’s School of Arts only had 12 of them to give out. After much revising of my proposal I sent it off. A few weeks later I was told I had failed to get a scholarship, though I had made ‘the final fifteen’. Like a spare apostle. (‘Did you know Jesus?’ ‘No, but I made the final fifteen.’)

However, I was offered a small ‘studentship’ bursary, which pays for the fees only, and have since been advised that these are not give out lightly either. It would mean I’d have to do the PhD part-time, and live on very little. Or try to do paid work at the same time, despite my slowness. So that’s what I’m looking at doing when the MA ends in September. Until then, I will spend the summer doing the MA dissertation, while also trying to find somewhere to live, on top of working out how best to fit 23 years of possessions into a couple of minicab rides. And as I write this, my back pain has suddenly flared up out of nowhere, the one that turned out to be stress-related. I hope something good comes out of all this, because I’m rather fed up with 2017 being quite such a challenging year.

Quentin Crisp lasted 40 years in his Chelsea bedsit. I was rather hoping to beat his record. But never mind. I’m not him. I just hope I can find a new landlord who, like Mr Crisp’s and mine, look kindly upon those ‘of a different stripe’, as he put it.

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Haircuts in the Dark

Monday 21st November 2016. To the Peltz Gallery at Gordon Square, for A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting. A fascinating display of British film fans’ archives, from long before the internet era. One collector has kept careful records on all the films he sees during the 50s, as my own father did on comics, and later videos.

The 50s records take the form of typed index cards in a detached metal drawer. I like the exotic names of old cinemas in Derby and Nottingham: ‘The Essoldo’, ‘The Cameo’. One forgets just how much re-seeing used to go on. This enthusiast paid to see The Bounty Hunter, starring Randolph Scott, on a staggering 14 separate occasions, all between 1955 and 1958. Fourteen! Do today’s fans go to see, say, Mad Max: Fury Road  that much?

Another exhibit consists of little envelopes containing clipped-out single frames from reels of film. Their owner was a Brighton projectionist: I learn that clipping out frames as souvenirs was once a common ritual of the profession. Presumably it doesn’t go on any more, what with the rise digital projectors. I think also of vintage clippings of hair kept in lockets. Except that this gentleman’s attitude isn’t always positive: he annotates each clipping with potted reviews on the envelope, and many are scathing. In this way, cinema projectionists are like taxi drivers. A job with a lot of autonomy and personal space, except that other people are still telling you what to do. So the space is soon filled up with rants and opinions. For Africa Adventure he writes, ‘I detest all films in which animals are even slightly inconvenienced’. For Androcles the Lion he says, ‘I enjoyed the acting of the lion the most.’  For The Immortal Monster (1959) he writes, ‘NB: Note hysterical erotic attitude of dancer’. The synopsis on Wikipedia for this film is: ‘Academic researchers are chased by a nuclear-hot specimen of ancient Mayan blob’.

More worryingly, on the envelope for Light Up The Sky is this little detail: ‘While this film was being shown, a man was murdered in the car park a few yards from my office’.

The most impressive exhibit is a collection of index cards devoted to film actors. The Peltz gallery has managed to fill an entire wall with these lovingly kept little biographies, floor to ceiling. The effect is a kind of geek sublime. On top of the sheer number of the things, each card is written in tiny longhand biro. I envy the writer’s ability to get his writing so small, yet still legible.

From a sample card, on Mae West: ‘Plumply sexy, stylish, fruity and scandalous American entertainer who sidled along like a predatory costumed lobster’.

***

A news article this week reveals that 2016 has seen sales of vinyl records outstrip those of digital downloads. In fact, this is a statistic based on money spent rather than units, and vinyl is now much pricier than downloads. The popularity of streaming sites like Spotify has hit downloads, too. People are less interested in owning digital copies of albums. If it’s digital, it can stay online. The implication is that the internet is now always to hand.

Except not to hand enough. Nothing to grasp with one’s real hands. There’s currently a huge poster campaign on London transport celebrating various successful YouTubers. It’s interesting that the images in this campaign have YouTubers holding the red YouTube play button, now rendered as a physical object in their hands. This is the paradox of virtual content: it’s still made by people who inhabit bodies, and bodies need props. There are now BookTubers, YouTubers who make videos in which they review books. More often than not, they hold up hardbacks or paperbacks for the camera, rather than hold up a Kindle.

***

Tuesday 22nd November 2016. Spending most of my time in the British Library this week, researching the autumn term essay for the MA. Not so lonely, though: I bump into David Benson. Last saw him on stage at a BL event, in fact, performing selections from the Kenneth Williams diaries. The full bulk of them had just been acquired by the BL, on behalf of the public. I love that his impersonation, honed from umpteen performances of his KW stage show, could now be put to use at an event about archives.

***

Wednesday 23rd November 2016. A session with the Birkbeck counsellor. A discussion of my propensity to self-sabotage: oversleeping, procrastination, a general avoidance of things. I have the recurring fantasy of someone suddenly getting in touch with some golden offer, financial and vocational. Except I never know what form this might take.

***

Finish reading a book I’m reviewing for The Wire: Honk, Conk and Squacket: Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening. It’s an encyclopaedia of obsolete words, specifically to do with sounds and music. The world of onomatopoeia is vastly diminished these days, now that the machines have become silent. But humans still associate noises with completed processes. So the cameras on phones don’t go ‘click’ – they play ‘click’. Little cover versions of obsolescence.

***

Mid-November for critics is the Best of the Year time. I’ve been asked to declare my favourite music of 2016, but I can only think of two new-ish albums I’ve really enjoyed.

One is Laurie Anderson’s Heart of A Dog soundtrack, which is effectively the whole film without the images. But even though the film was released in 2016, the CD came out in October 2015, so I suppose it can’t count.

This leaves the Pet Shop Boys’ Super, which I adore and have played repeatedly. I now note that Super is missing from most media outlets’ Albums of 2016, despite getting good reviews on its release. The Beyonce album seems to be the token 2016 pop album; otherwise it’s all tried and tested old rockers:  Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave. Plus the last Bowie and Cohen records, the interpretation of which can’t be separated from the artists’ deaths. I had thought the Pet Shop Boys album was a welcome dash of upbeat, danceable colour and energy, amongst all the year’s gloom and morbidity. But most critics have decided that 2016 must be framed and preserved as a year of anger, darkness and despair. So perhaps Super doesn’t fit their narrative. Well, it fits my narrative.

I take no joy in being unable to name any further favourite albums. My only excuse is that I’ve just been more drawn to old music, or books, or films, or art exhibitions. It’s possibly a problem of one’s cultural inputs. I used to spend hours listening to John Peel, reading Melody Maker and flicking through the new releases in Our Price. All those things have gone now. Perhaps my problem is associating new music with vanished practices, and so need to change my habits. I feel too old to listen to Radio 1, but not old enough to listen to Radio 2.

What I have listened to is a lot of radio news, perhaps thinking that this counts as keeping in touch.  But time spent on listening to news is time not spent listening to music. Vary the diet, that’s all one can do. Notice what speaks to the heart. News is hard to avoid anyway; it’ll get to you one way or another.

Tastes change behind one’s back; palates alter with age. One never knows until one tries. Am I finally ready for experimental jazz? Is anyone?

With all that in mind, my favourite things of 2016 are as follows.

Films: Heart of a Dog. Eight Days A Week (Beatles documentary). The Neon Demon. Victoria. Love and Friendship. Author (JT LeRoy documentary). Hail Caesar!

New Books: Michael White’s Popkiss. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable. McEwan’s Nutshell. Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On. Ronald Blythe’s Stour Seasons.

Old Books: Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller.

Art: Made You Look – Dandyism & Black Masculinity (Photographers’ Gallery). Alice in Wonderland (British Library). Shakespeare in Ten Acts (BL). Magnus Arrevad – Boy Story (5 Willoughby Street). Performing For the Camera (Tate Modern).

DVDs: Lawrence of Belgravia. Akenfield.

Gig: Fingersnaps (Wallace Collection).

Events that defined the year, as opposed to favourite things: The hostage selfie. The Brexit result (regrettably).

***

Thursday 24th November 2016. Evening classes at Birkbeck: Tony Harrison’s V, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.

***

Friday 25th November 2016. After working at the London Library, I walk through Soho to find the whole district in blackness. A power cut has hit several blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue, up to Broadwick Street. A sense of  curious novelty and strangeness abounds, rather than fear. People switch on the torches on their phones and train them on their steps. Their faces are still obscured. I can’t quite see the people I’m passing, but they can’t see me either. I wonder if this is what Soho was like in the WW2 blackouts: those tales of furtive liberation, of kisses in the dark, and more.

On Lexington Street, some of the restaurants and bars have set out tea lights on the counters and tables. But not all emporiums keep candles for emergencies. I pass a darkened hairdresser’s and see there’s people still in there. I make out a hairdresser standing over her client, struggling to finish the job. A lit-up phone in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.

***

Saturday 26th November 2016. Age comes with a trail of faded friendships. I bump into someone I used to know in the British Library café. It’s someone from the early 90s, the Sarah Records phase of my life. When this happens I always take a few seconds to fully grasp the identity of the other person, my memory usually failing me. Invariably, the other person thinks I can’t remember who they are, and the encounter quickly collapses into an awkward parting of the ways.

A few moments after they’ve gone, of course, it all comes back to me. I do know exactly who they are: I just need a few more seconds, that’s all. But it’s too late. So I come away feeling I’ve done something terribly wrong.

This is one reason why I don’t go to school reunions: I can’t see how it’ll be anything but a stream of memory tests and point scoring.

Plus, I need advance warning of my surprises. This is only partly meant as a joke. Normal people have a ‘delightfully surprised’ face, easily accessed for sudden encounters. The have the face ready for reacting to surprise gifts, or indeed for surprise offers of marriage. But I am built differently. Sudden delight does not come easy to me. My reaction to most things is utter confusion.

Andy Warhol was stopped on the street every day of his life. He says somewhere that the best thing to do is just pretend that you last saw each other yesterday, rather than twenty years ago. So you just reply that you’re on the way to the cinema, or whatever. Nonchalently, matter-of-fact. You never, ever say ‘long time no see’. That risks the answer, ‘Yes. And there’s a reason for that.’

***

Sunday 27th November 2016. I browse in Waterstones, Gower Street. The success of the Ladybird parodies last Christmas has meant that this year there’s an exponential proliferation. Great toppling piles of the things. Fake Famous Five satirical books, along the lines of ‘Five Go To Brexit Island’. Spoof I-Spy books. And as with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ design a few years ago, the initial charm of the idea has given way to the less attractive symptoms of a bandwagon.

It’s too easy to think of further titles: a lazy Fighting Fantasy parody, perhaps: The Warlock of Brexit Mountain. (If this happens I will kill again).

I leaf through the music news. Some artists have their tours advertised with the promise of old hits. An exception is Kate Bush, whose new live album eschews her more obvious singles. For this she is praised. Then she mentions in an interview that she likes Theresa May. For this she is castigated. There’s a moral there about what people want from their favourite musicians, and what is allowed. Success means being cast as a character. Get the lines right.

***

Friday 2nd December 2016. To the Barbican art gallery for The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The exhibition has rather promising posters, with an androgynous blonde in a garish multi-coloured jacket, looking like a postmodern toreador. The jacket is printed with a cacophony of icons from medieval manuscripts: orbs and sceptres, medals, and so on.

So much for the poster. The exhibition itself begins well, with huge wall-mounted gold coins punctuating the rooms, each one inscribed with Adam Phillips’s pronouncements on the meaning of ‘vulgar’. The accompanying leaflet says, ‘the exhibition begins on the lower level’, but there’s no indication of irony about this statement. And that seems to be the flaw: the exhibition takes itself too seriously. To display works by Alexander McQueen surely invites comparison with the major show at the V&A recently. In which case, The Vulgar comes over as a lot less fun. It sets out to examine the history of ostentatious fashion, yet without the lighting effects and pumping music one associates with catwalks, the clothes here seem curiously cold and lifeless.

I wonder if this is the fault of the venue, as the Barbican is currently going through a phase of cool self-consciousness. It’s so aware of its hip Brutalist architecture that it can barely say anything at all. Fashion is the Botox of thought.

I think about the way The Vulgar gestures towards behaviour. What does the Barbican hold to be the opposite of vulgar? The answer is perhaps found in the centre’s poster campaign to advertise its membership scheme. One is captioned ‘for lovers’: an image of two youngish people standing on one of the walkways around the centre. He is a lightly bearded man in jeans and a blue suit jacket, she is a Zooey Deschanel lookalike, in a vintage red dress with a white lacey collar, her dark hair in a heavy fringe. They both wear glasses, though her frames are slightly oversized in the present hipster manner. I wonder how this couple met, and think of an update on the personal ad joke in Annie Hall: ‘Must like Brutalism, David Foster Wallace and sodomy’.

On a separate poster, ‘Membership for Gastronomers’, flaunts an even more fashion-conscious young man, posing in one of the Barbican eateries. His beard is worn in the full George Bernard Shaw bushiness, joined up with a ‘man bun’, being long hair rolled up and balanced tidily on the crown, like a  miniature hair beret. Fenella H tells me you can now buy fake man-buns. A hip toupee. This poster boy wears a cream jacket over a multi-coloured patterned shirt, set off with a rather nice purple hankerchief in the pocket. I’d call these latter aspects dandyish, if it wasn’t for his beard, hair and blue jeans signifying ‘fashion’ rather than ‘style’. Dandies are anti-fashion and pro-style.

The dilemma for young people has always been how to stand out yet join in at the same time. And given these literal poster kids are advertising Barbican membership, the message is about belonging, getting it right. In other words, not being vulgar. In a few decades to come these posters will be useful for scholars of 2016 fashion. The trouble is, right now they serve to consolidate the Barbican’s self-image as a place of cool, and thus not the best place to host a show about vulgarity.

I think a better venue would be the V&A or Somerset House, where the fogeyish sense of crumbing empires defuses any claims to trendiness. This is why the McQueen and Blow shows worked so well in those places. Still, The Vulgar is a noble attempt nonetheless.

***

Monday 6th December 2016. To the panelled rooms and stone staircases of 28 Russell Square, for a one-off Birkbeck event: a lecture by David James on ‘critical solace’. His examples are McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Sebald’s Austerlitz. Much of his talk is heavy on the theoretical, and a lot of what he says would have gone straight over my head a few years ago, until I started hitting heavy books by dead Frenchmen. Today my brain is a little more acclimatised to such theory, though my dyspraxia means I still have the urge to put a lecturer on ‘pause’, so I can properly chew over what’s just been said.

Still, there are consolations for slowness, too. It’s well-known that obituaries are written in advance and kept on file, ready to be revised and published within minutes of their subject’s final breath. Thus in the event of a celebrity death, torrents of words and pictures appear like a magic trick, as if to defy death with a surge in production by the living. ‘Tributes pour in’, but what’s really being paid tribute to is the swift industry of the obituary editors. So for those of us who aren’t as fast at writing as others, it’s heartening to see the occasional mistake made through haste . This is a sentence from CNN’s Castro obituary this week:

Fidel Castro outlived six US presidents, [[[NOTE: change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]]]

***

Then to Gordon Square for a general event about PHDs. First year PHD students answer questions for those who, like myself, are interested in doing a PHD at Birkbeck. At the event, one of the tutors explains how no one does a PHD for the money; it’s common for a funded three years to lead to a fourth unfunded ‘writing up’ year, and the student risks living on ‘bread and water’, as one tutor tonight puts it.

The deadline for applying for the main full-time PHD bursary, in time for an Autumn 2017 start, turns out to be this January. Next month. And it involves putting together a 2000 word proposal. I’m already writing a 5000 word essay for the MA. And this diary is taking me too long as it is… (I may have to put it on hold for a while, or put out a briefer version)

I know I want to go straight into a PHD once the MA is done in September, so as not to lost momentum.  I also know I want to do it full-time, so I can finally treat the whole business like a proper job. With a sustainable wage (well, a modest 16k), paid for something I’m good at and actually enjoy, the self-esteem will make all the difference. The only thing is, I need to improve my working speed.

***

Thursday 8th December 2016. A Birkbeck class on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Finished Thing. The Girl is a quickly-canonised thing: a debut novel from 2013, initially published by a tiny independent press, showered with awards, republished by Faber, and already a set text in universities.

Some of my fellow students say they find McBride’s experimental prose more impenetrable than the Beckett and Joyce texts which inspired it – and these are people who’ve written essays on Ulysses. My own reaction veers toward seeing it as a kind of modernist revival text. I worry if that can be read as retreating away from contemporary experience. But then, that’s the dilemma of revivalism full stop. Wanting the new to be more like the old. But the class consensus is that the novel’s a worthy accomplishment, and a gift to any discussion about the purpose of novels.


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A Craze Of Pomegranates

Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.

A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.

Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority.  A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.

My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:

‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.

The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:

‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.

***

Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly.  It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.

Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’

But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.

(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).

Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.

This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.

***

Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.

The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.

Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.

Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.

I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.

***

Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.

***

Friday 30th September 2016.  And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’

I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.

Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.

This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.

Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.

Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.

***

Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.

***

Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame. 

***

Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.

In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.

I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.

Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.

Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).

After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton.  I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.

***

Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.

There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.

Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.

***

Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.

***

Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.

At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.

Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.

It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make.  His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity.  It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.

Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.

Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.

That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.

***

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