The Freak Manifesto

Sunday 17 June 2018. Breakfast at Dalston Superstore, my regular Sunday habit. I sit there quietly by myself at one of the tables, usually reading the Sunday Times for the book charts, careful to finish before the lunchtime cabaret performance by a drag queen.

Am currently reading The Sound of Nonsense by Richard Elliott, reviewing it for The Wire. The book makes some fascinating links between the nonsense sound-words used in classic children’s literature, notably by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and the rather more adult nonsense of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A 1958 audio version of Alice in Wonderland is singled out for verging on the experimental. It was released on the Argo label, produced by Donald Cleverdon, with a 12-year-old Jane Asher as Alice.

Looking up Mr Cleverdon, I’ve since found out about a BBC Third Programme broadcast he produced in 1951, featuring ‘sequences’ from 1920s experimental literature, as chosen by V. S. Pritchett. There’s excerpts from Ulysses (Joyce), The Apes of God (Wyndham Lewis), The Flower Beneath the Foot (Firbank), Kangaroo (DH Lawrence), and To the Lighthouse (Woolf). I discover that the British Library owns an analogue recording of this. It will only be digitised and made accessible if someone puts in a request. I put in a request.

Also in the nonsense book, Mr Elliott discusses nonsense in music, both experimental and pop. He brings in Ivor Cutler and the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, as well as the ‘plunderphonic’ albums of John Oswald. Elliott quotes the Bonzos’ ‘My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe’. I love the section at the end when Vivian Stanshall performs a spoken word ramble. It is a mission statement for misfits; a freak manifesto:

‘Oh, who cares anyway because I do not… So, Norman, if you’re normal, I intend to be a freak for the rest of my life. And I shall baffle you with cabbages and rhinoceroses in the kitchen and incessant quotations from Now We Are Six through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty’s giant poisoned electric head… So THERE!’

The ‘there’ goes on forever, until the needle lifts off the record.

***

Tuesday 19 June 2018. What to believe in, when one writes? Strive for the perfect sentence? Yes, but also: dare to write a sentence that might be of use, if only to the lonely and the strange.

Strive to be quotable, too. I like how Hamlet is essentially a string of quotations. Alice in Wonderland likewise.

***

Wednesday 20 June 2018. To the Rio to see The Happy Prince, the Rupert Everett film about the last years of Oscar Wilde. Mr Everett writes, acts and directs the whole thing himself: clearly a labour of love.

It’s a neat complement to the Wilde of Stephen Fry, because it uses one of the fairy tales as a metaphor: the Fry film used ‘The Selfish Giant’. Both films have scenes in which Wilde reads the story to his sons.

But whereas Wilde presented a more public, fairly conventional take on Wilde (the sex scenes notwithstanding), Everett’s is much more personal, and more queer. His Wilde is a broken, complicated man at the mercy of his feelings. He is also an aging, single gay man battling an existential crisis, and that is a narrative one still doesn’t see very often. Young angsty gay men are fine (Call Me By Your Name), as are older happy ones with partners, or groups of friends, or poodles. But single, angst-ridden gay men of an older age? One gets the sense that the wider world doesn’t want to know. So this film does not care who cares for it, and that in itself makes it admirable.

Everett’s Bosie is Colin Morgan, who played the young Merlin on TV. With long blond hair he is barely recognisable, and threatens to steal the film. Bosie after the trial: the original toxic boyfriend. Still sexy in a reptilian way, but still destructive. And nice to see Colin Firth as Wilde’s pal Reggie Turner, the actor here helping out his real life friend Everett, all those years after they appeared as floppy-haired schoolboys in Another Country.

Actually, I think Another Country has fallen off the radar somewhat. Maybe in time it will only be known as a poster behind Paul Weller’s head, on the sleeve of the Style Council’s Our Favourite Shop.

**

Thursday 21 June 2018. Finished writing the review for The Wire. Lunch: tagliatelle at Café Deco in Store Street. A cheap, unfashionable café with tables in the basement, usually empty. All the students prefer the trendier Store Street Espresso nearby, or the café in Waterstones Gower Street, the window of which is usually full of pale bearded children, sitting at their pristine Mac laptops, seemingly all day.

One of the recurring subjects taught at university these days is the concept of utopias (and indeed dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale). The lack of money aside, student life is a utopia in itself. To sit all day in a Waterstones café, or the huge yet still packed cafe at the British Library, writing endless essays on Margaret Drabble (I imagine). Paradise of a kind. There are whispers of mythical things called offices, but no one here has ever seen one.

**

To the London College of Fashion, off Oxford Circus, to join the library there, part of the University of Arts. I think I have about twenty library cards now. And yet there’s still books which I do need to consult, which can only be found in one library. In this case, an admittedly obscure collection of essays on Sontag and camp.

**

Bump into Ben Moor in the basement café of Waterstones Tottenham Court Road – another little utopian cafe, with lots of tables. He asks if I am going to any of the many festivals this summer. No is the answer, really. I had a good time as a hanger-on at the Stoke Newington Lit Fest a few weeks ago. It taught me that I was fine with festivals as long as they’re in London (and a lot are).

The thing is, so many live events are recorded or podcasted now (Glastonbury on the BBC for instance). It doesn’t seem worth the inconvenience and expense purely to be in someone else’s audience. And indeed, I’d probably be envious of seeing all the other people who were booked instead of me, and be reminded of my own lack of bookings.

This isn’t vanity entirely. At one festival I went to, some young people came up to me to ask what time I was on. They didn’t know who I was: they just assumed that someone who looks like me must be a performer or a presenter. Given I hadn’t been booked, this was both flattering and depressing.

Still, there do seem to be more events than ever. And Grayson Perry can’t appear at all of them.

I really need to get some new work out, if only so it gives me a reason to appear at events.

**

Friday 22 June 2018. Cheap fish & chips at Birkbeck canteen (5th floor, overlooking RADA). Someone unkind has installed a flat-screen TV in the corner of the college canteen, tuned permanently to the coverage of the World Cup. This evening I’m the only customer in the canteen: the exams are over, and the summer term is nearly at an end. But the football burbles on in the background. If Gareth Southgate falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear him, does he still make a sound? In this instance, sadly for me, he does.

**

I read McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, prompted by the film coming out (which I’ve yet to see). The repressed sexuality theme is laid on so heavily, to the point where I laugh aloud. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be funny.

It’s an elongated short story, really, in the same tradition as ‘Cat Person’ more recently. The familiar narrative of the bad date. Mr McEwan tops up what is essentially a short story by adding details of the backstory of each character, and then gives us a look into the future at the end, though only for the young man. It’s odd that he denies the reader the girl’s later perspective. Still, McEwan’s clear, cold style is perfect for portraying a very English kind of awkwardness.

I contrast this by watching Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up show Nanette, hosted online by Netflix. The show has become a word-of-mouth hit – indeed, it had already won awards as a stage act. Her Netflix performance was filmed at the Sydney Opera House, no less.

I was aware of Ms Gadsby before. Like many comedians, her act involved jokes about the way she appears: in her case, a butch-looking lesbian with an Australian-sounding accent – Tasmanian, in fact. But on this occasion she takes the comedy into a questioning of the form itself. What is comedy for?

It’s something which only Stewart Lee is really doing at a high profile level, though Ms G adds a twist of female, gay anger. Why, she asks, she should have to play the self-mocking card, given that, as Quentin Crisp would say, she’s already at the mercy of the world?  We learn that in Tasmania homosexuality was only legalised in the late 1990s. How easy it is to forget that the way things are in the UK are not the way things are everywhere, even in English-speaking countries.

What impresses chiefly is Ms Gadsby’s seamless shifting from jokes to politics to memoir to angry rant, and back again. And art history too: ‘Picasso wanted to paint a woman from every perspective at once – except the perspective of a woman’.

She’s meant to be giving up comedy after this, as proof of her frustration with the medium. I wonder if she’ll move into some sort of essay-cum-documentary form. Jonathan Meades and Adam Curtis do it, so why not her?

My landlady is away, so I’m feeding Fergus, her pet albino rat. He eats little specialist biscuits, though he prefers to grab each biscuit and scurry under his layers of blankets to eat it, out of sight. I know the feeling.

**

Monday 25 June 2018. Mum’s birthday. We spend the day in London together. I show her the London Library, though she finds the stacks with the cast iron grills set off her vertigo. If one looks down from the top floor, one can see the four or five floors of shelving beneath one’s feet. There’s no question of falling, unless one is a small wingless insect. But the awareness of stepping over so much raw vertical space is enough for Mum. Thankfully, there’s other sections, such as the rolling stacks in the basement, with their treasure trove of old journals and magazines.

Then to Mildred’s in Lexington Street in Soho, which it turns out is best visited at 2pm onwards: no queues. Then to the NPG for the BP portrait show, where we agree on the best effort: A portrait of two female painters by Ania Hobson. Two tough-looking women are shown sitting on a sofa, painted at such an unusual angle that one of the women’s high-heeled boots dominates the frame.

**

Tuesday 3 July 2018. Another hot day in a library, working away on the PhD. Except today I make a trip to Oxford to join the Bodleian. So another library card. ‘Yours is more powerful than the standard Oxford undergraduate’s card’, says the nice lady in Admissions. ‘Oxford is your oyster’.

Except that I only want to access the one item: Alan Hollinghurst’s M.Litt thesis, on Firbank, Forster and LP Hartley. Written 1979. Despite the feeling that everything old is now available online, there’s still documents like this which have never been digitised – I think AH might have specified this. So the only way to read the thing is to make to the trip in person to the David Reading Room, high up on the fifth floor of the Weston Library, the shiny modern part of the Bodleian.

I have to hand over my reader’s ticket when collecting the thesis. I also have to sign my name on a sort of visitor’s book slip, which is attached to the flyleaf. All the previous borrowers are listed on older layers of slips underneath. It’s like the old date stamps on a library book, but with the added benefit of seeing the names of the borrowers too. A palimpsest effect. The history of an object. Handled by all these other people since 1980.

I recognise the names of some of the previous users, because they’ve written articles about Firbank or Hollinghurst: Allan Johnson, Richard Canning, Paul Vlitos, Emily Horton, Joseph Bristow. And there’s my friend and fellow indie musician turned scholar, Martin Wallace. And now, today, I add my name to the list.

The thesis is an A4 black hardback, made of typewritten pages with the odd handwritten correction. Hollinghurst is full of praise for Brigid Brophy’s Prancing Novelist (1973). He also writes that Firbank’s campness ‘dissolves’ any sense of moral judgement, due to its inspiration by ‘the suzerainty of the libido’.

(‘If you knew suzerainty of the libido like I knew suzerainty of the libido….’)

I break for lunch at the pub opposite, the King’s Arms, which I think I’ve been to before, with Oxford friends, decades ago. The football is on the screens.

Barman: You looking forward to the match?

Me: Not really. Football is… awful.

Actually, I don’t say that. I just like the idea of doing so. But the ‘Three Lions’ song from 1996 is now everywhere, so no one can blame me.

Perhaps ‘Three Lions’ is the true legacy of Britpop. Yet it’s not even a World Cup song: it’s a European Cup song. According to David Baddiel, the ‘football’s coming home’ phrase was originally a reference to England’s hosting of the Euro 96 tournament, which makes more sense.

But oh, how one hears it now, yelled in that guttural, frightening, tribal manner.

Football’s coming home?

Coming?

I’m at home, and I’ve never heard the end of it.

Still, as with the royal wedding, one mustn’t begrudge the joy of others. What gets me far more excited is the discovery at Ryman’s that Bic are now selling their fine-tipped biros in packs of four.

**

Saturday 7 July 2018. I walk through Tavistock Square, past the little plaque marking the explosion of the bus on 7/7. Today is the 13th anniversary. There’s fresh bouquets: one from a family to a lost daughter.

England are in the World Cup quarter finals, and the big Pride march is on too. I don’t go, but I enjoy the surge on the tube of sparkly boys. My landlady is in the march, which reminds me of something Quentin Crisp says in his one man show, on stage in New York in the late 1970s: ‘The other day my landlady got into the wrong march. That’ll give you an idea of what’s going on there’.

In the British Library I consult the 1929 five-volume set of Firbank’s collected works. Osbert Sitwell provides an introductory essay in the first volume, calling RF’s books ‘the product of the war … more truly than any others in the English language’. Really? More so than Wilfred Owen?

For one artist to champion another involves a degree of vanity. Nothing delights a film critic more than seeing their review quoted on a poster. It makes them feel like they matter after all.

Still, it is true that WW1 forced Firbank into taking writing seriously. I like the idea of the spirit of English camp fiction passing from Saki into Firbank the moment HH Munro was shot dead in the trenches. (Not quite: Munro died in 1916; Firbank’s Vainglory came out in 1915).

**

I’m writing this in Café Route, Dalston Square. The young man next to me on this window bench has just left and been replaced by someone looking exactly the same. Shorts, t-shirt, backpack, laptop, quiff hairdo.

**

Wednesday 11 July 2018. To Gordon Square for a meeting with my PhD supervisor. This marks the end of my first year as a PhD student. Dr B is more or less happy with my work so far, and gives me plenty of suggestions as to which paths to go down next. My plan is now to get the second chapter finished by the end of September: 15,000 words, of which I already have written 10,000. All being well, I should then have enough material for the ‘upgrade’ to proper PhD status in my second year, which for a part-timer is quite speedy.

I work in the London Library till 8pm, then take the tube home. The World Cup semi-final with England is taking place this evening. The current captain, Gareth Southgate, is known for wearing a waistcoat with suit trousers. On him it’s admittedly quite stylish, but now the media and the fans have all gone a bit silly and started promoting this look as a sign of fandom. Football ‘cosplay’, I suppose. So today I have to ensure I do not wear a waistcoat, for fear of being engaged in a conversation about football.

Despite the increase in the amount of women football fans, there’s still a clear gender bias among those who are defiantly indifferent. This is evidenced by my tube journey home. Most of the other passengers around me are women. It’s the same as I walk past restaurant windows: a sudden awareness of women dining with other women. All the men have gone away. It’s like being in Y: The Last Man.

At home I check Twitter to learn that England have lost. I am sad about this, but the silver lining is that the song ‘Three Lions’ is instantly redundant. People in pubs are instead singing the Monty Python song ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life’, from Life of Brian, a film that criticises crowds acting in mindless unison.

To stop myself getting too grumpy, I think of the many intellectual and artistic treatments of the game that I do like, such as the novels of David Peace, or the Tom Stoppard play Professional Foul.

There is an anecdote on Ronald Firbank and football, as told by Vyvyan Holland in 1929:

‘Firbank never played games, though he occasionally appeared in the costume of sport, apparently returning from some strenuous and probably purely imaginary form of exercise. Seeing him once clad in a sweater and football shorts, I asked him what on earth he had been doing. ‘Oh, football,’ he replied. ‘Rugger or Soccer?’ ‘Oh, I don’t remember’ – and a laugh. ‘Well, was the ball round or egg-shaped?’ ‘Oh! I was never near enough to it to see that!’

(from Ronald Firbank: A Memoir, ed. by I.  K. Fletcher, 1930).

**
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Everybody Loves Raymond

Thursday 17th May 2018. To the Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an evening of archive documentaries, all on the subject of Raymond Williams. The co-organiser, Colm McAuliffe, is in the same PhD group as myself. He had wanted to call tonight’s event ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, but someone had advised him that this would be frivolous. He mentions this anecdote in his spoken introduction, thus getting mileage out of the joke after all.

The documentaries in question are Border Country from 1972, and The Country and The City from 1979. The latter was made to tie in with Mr Williams’s book of the same name. The book is a set text at Birkback: I consulted it when writing an essay about London.

Both these films feature Williams wandering around the landscape of England and Wales, on the 1970s. He walks and talks to the camera, and often smokes a pipe while doing so. Sometimes he uses the pipe as a means of punctuation, finishing his sentence, then inserting the pipe into his mouth and walking off into the distance. A fluid, natural movement to him, but one which these days would be rare. Williams’s pipe is his prosthetic, much as smartphones are prosthetics today. People regard them as part of their own body. My fellow student Simon King tells me of the verb ‘to lunt’, meaning to walk while smoking a pipe. The OED regards this meaning as too obscure, though, and only allows ‘lunt’ to mean ‘to smoke a pipe’ full stop, regardless of any auxiliary behaviour.

Finally there’s a screening of a 1980s TV studio discussion, made just after Williams’s death. Possibly BBC2, late night. Or Channel 4, from the time when Channel 4 catered for intellectuals. Terry Eagleton, Stuart Hall and others sit apart from each other in a circle, in an overly lit red-draped TV studio, with a mysterious vase of lilies in the middle. It is the Open University as directed by David Lynch.

Williams’s book ‘Keywords’ is mentioned as one of those life-changing, mind-improving books people buy to press into the hands of others. After the films, there’s a panel discussion, and the question arises about where a discussion like the 1980s one might be found today: it seems too highbrow even for BBC4. I’d say possibly a segment in Newsnight, though these days the guests would have been booked purely with a hope to getting a shouting match, and so produce a clickbait clip to pass around on the internet.

Afterwards, some of us repair to a pub in Marston Street, an unpretentious one of the kind that still exists in London. It is covered in union jacks and bunting, with lots of images of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle looking like their own Madame Tussaud’s dummies.

**

Friday 18 May 2018. Working on the paper for the Work in Progress conference at Birkbeck.

A current irritant: the backpack. Perfectly acceptable in its place, such as on the cover of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. But today’s backpackers are not walking across Europe, or even going to a rock festival. They are merely going to work. The backpack has replaced the briefcase. On the tube, every day is Glastonbury Day.

These things are ugly enough, but the imposture extends when the backpacker gets into a congested tube carriage or a lift, like the ones at Russell Square that I endure every day. Soon, without realising it, the backpack is pushing into the face of a stranger. More considerate wearers take their backpack off, holding the things in front of them until there is more space to become the human version of a long vehicle once again. I long for this fashion to move on.

**

Saturday 19 May 2018. A British prince and an American divorcee get married, with pleasing historical resonance. I avoid the wedding itself, but glance at some of the reports and photos. Today I’m in the London Library reading Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot, a novel which ends with a royal wedding.

There probably will not be another royal wedding on this scale for another 25 years, so I suppose one must not begrudge the pleasure this one provides for so many. I do find it intriguing how the royal-loving public nevertheless likes some royals much more than others. One of the Duchess of York’s daughters is also marrying in Windsor later in the year, but it is unlikely that there will be quite the same level of public attention. It seems that even people who like royal weddings have taste.

**

Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m thinking about Tom Wolfe, who died this week. His dandyism was a hangover from the New Journalism movement, when American writers were encouraged to look as stylish as their prose. Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion – they all played up to the camera as much as the typewriter. They worked on their brand.

When it comes to beach shorts and Hawaiian shirts, Hunter S Thompson is the exception that proves the rule: only he is allowed to dress like that. Joan Didion’s photographs indicate hours of learning how to pose – usually with a cigarette angled just so.

And so it was with Tom Wolfe. The white suits kept his writing on the radar. I discover now that he was fairly conservative in his politics. This is true of many dandies and white suit wearers;  Trump’s friend Roger Stone is the most notorious example. The left wing look, meanwhile, favours a pipe (Raymond Williams, Tony Benn, Umberto Eco, Harold Wilson). Quite why a pipe should signify socialism is beyond me: the odorous things are incredibly anti-social.

The other lefty look is, of course, the Bob Dylan cap. As favoured by Lenin and, indeed, Lennon. And now, Corbyn. Dylan himself did both looks, exchanging the cap and the denims for Swinging London suits when he went electric. In the process, he adopted if not quite a conservative look, certainly a more camp look (an electric guitar is more camp than an acoustic one). Todd Haynes’s film has Dylan played by a woman at this point (Cate Blanchett), putting a neat spin on the idea of a ‘Judas’.

The trouble is, I’m writing all this while dressed like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

**

Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m going through old computer files, in the process of backing up my data. I’d been meaning to do so since I went to a talk by a British Library archivist. He warned that hard drives can start to degrade after a mere five years. A new external hard drive is pricier than I thought – £45 is the cheapest one at Argos – but the space it gives, 1000GB, makes the computers of one’s youth so laughable. Magazine adverts in the 1980s promising the glories of extra RAM chips of 64k.

**

I find an old review of the first Fosca album. Quite damning. The critic is an Orlando fan who says I went from articulating universal angst (Orlando) to peddling idiosyncratic misanthropy (Fosca). The truth is that these were not phases but facets. The idea that people are monolithic has never found favour with me. People are complicated, but this does not fit with the instinct to judge someone as one thing only.

Still, no review lasts like a negative review. The original is not online – I think it was just written for a webzine. It may only exist today on this old digital file I’ve just found. The author may even have forgotten it himself. But years later here I am brooding upon it.

I once saw a documentary on Radiohead’s album OK Computer. It was the most praised album of its time. This was mainly because it came on the heels of Britpop, and everyone was just relieved that bands were now allowed to sound different from Oasis. Yet the singer, Mr Yorke, was shown dwelling morosely on a rare negative review he had come across. It was the only one he believed.

Many people flatter their favourite writers or musicians in an attempt to become their friend. This rarely succeeds. If you really want to make an impact on the mind of your hero, give them a bad review.

**

Wednesday 23 May 2018. To the Rio to see Jeune Femme. French film (obviously), in which a young-ish woman is kicked out of her boyfriend’s Paris flat and has to fend for herself, looking for jobs and accommodation on the way. It burbles along pleasantly in this picaresque, if narcissistic fashion; not so much a story as time spent with a character.

**

Thursday 24 May 2018. To the ICA for ‘Queers Read This’, an evening of queer-related prose and poetry. The ICA theatre space is unchanged since the days of Kathy Acker: the same scuffed black room. I watch Joanna Walsh and Isabel Waidner perform, and I say hi afterwards. There’s a young man in red high heels who’s put out a book on Queer Loneliness. He in turn reads a piece by Olivia Laing, who also put out a book on loneliness. Both people seem well connected, so one presumes they’re not quite so lonely any more. I’d feel lonely myself, having turned up on my own, but Martin Wallace is here, and he keeps me company. We talk about the dilemma of being Morrissey fans, now that the great man has begged his admirers to vote for an anti-Islamic political party, For Britain. I’m just glad I’m not doing any indie music DJ-ing at the moment.

**

Friday 25 May 2018. To 30 Russell Square for a Birkbeck talk about careers after the PhD – specifically ones unrelated to academia. One speaker works for the Ministry of Defence. It sounds well paid, but she admits that her heart is really in academia – and she’s trying to get academic work published alongside that job.

Owen Hatherley is the other speaker: a foppish Birkbeck PhD graduate who has become a respected author, specialising in architecture. He bemoans not making a huge living as a freelance writing – especially now that freelance rates are frozen or are even getting lower.

The pitfalls of writing a non-fiction book, according to Mr H, are that if it’s with a small publisher and it’s not a massive seller, there’s unlikely to be a new edition. So any factual errors in the book are left seemingly unaddressed, shaming the writer down the years.

**

Wednesday 30 May 2018. To Covent Garden Odeon with Jon S to see Avengers: Infinity War. Although I’m not a superhero fan, I find this to be a far more entertaining film than the first Avengers one a few years ago. Here the emphasis is on teasing the audience that the good guys might not win after all – indeed that some favourite characters might die. Except they won’t, of course. This is the true ‘infinity war’: the struggle to convince audiences that an immortal character can die. Immortal as in the way Sherlock Holmes is immortal: he is a creature of infinity too.

Genre heroes are also trademarks and franchises, and any franchise similarly exists in a spirit of infinity. How many branches of Pret A Manger can be enough? If it were down to me, I’d open a chain of cafes called Borges Burgers, plus a chain of Hilbert Hotels.

‘Infinity? Is that old thing still going?’

**

Saturday 2 June 2018. Spend all day in Gordon Square, attending the PhD students’ in-house-only ‘Work in Progress’ conference. This is a laid-back affair. It is organised by students in the upper years and generally intended to get us in the habit of academic life. I am on in the morning, and deliver my paper on Firbank’s monocled publisher, Grant Richards.

Of the other papers, I am intrigued by one presented by the poet Sogol Sur, on ‘The Iranian Queer’. I learn that the language Farsi has genderless pronouns. As progressive as this may sound, it has meant that some Iranian poetry expressing same-sex love has been translated into English with the wrong pronouns, effectively heterosexualising the work.

Helena Esser presents research from her thesis on steampunk, which comes with that very contemporary reference: a Netflix recommendation – the documentary Vintage Tomorrows. I also enjoy Simon King on a psychogeographic walk inspired by Woolf’s Orlando. He quotes the passage where the boy Orlando sits by the oak tree on a hill and is able to see ‘nineteen English counties […] and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty’. This unlikely calculation is, I’d say, an example of the camp tone of the novel: that playful sense of exaggeration.  Camp is not just playing with gender: it is the whole feeling of pumping things up in a knowing way.

Then a couple of talks from Julia Bell, Birkbeck’s top creative writing tutor, and Sophie Jones, a youthful tutor who once taught me in a class on the BA, though neither of us can remember the text in question.

**

Sunday 3 June 2018. Brunch at La Duchesse café on Stoke Newington Church Street, then along the road to pick up a guest pass to the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, courtesy of Travis E. I attend a few events: a performance of Wilfred Owen’s war poems by Penny Rimbaud, which takes place in the atmospheric Old Church. I also go to Travis’s own event with Margaret Willes, discussing John Evelyn’s diaries alongside Pepys, and then diaries in general. They remind me that so many well-known diaries are by gay men: Jarman, Orton, Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward, Keith Vaughan, James Agate, Denton Welch, Alan Bennett. One theory might be the lack of children, though in Orton’s case I was always amazed he found the energy alongside all the sex.

Then to ‘Juke Box Fury’, presented by Richard Boon, in which guests talk about favourite songs. This year the guests are all record sleeve designers. One guest has a t-shirt spoofing John Lennon’s ad: ‘BREXIT IS OVER (if you want it)’. The thing is, I wonder how Lennon himself, who would be in his seventies now, would vote. Given the musical conservatism of his solo work, I can easily see him supporting the Leave vote.

Finally I attend ‘Sex, Love & Monogamy’, a comedy lecture by Rosie Wilby, with a poetry slot by Salena Godden. By this point I’m in a pleasant drunken haze – the sort of light hedonism I haven’t done for a long while.

I speak to Andy Miller off the Backlisted podcast. Then spend time with Sophie Parkin and Tim Wells, repairing to the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill, which is rather like the Boogaloo. I also spot Suzanne Moore, the recognisable columnist, closely followed by Thurston Moore, the even more recognisable rock musician. There’s a Half Man Half Biscuit song in there somewhere.

The festival green room is an old reference library, now used as the repository for Hackney Council’s housebound service. They deliver books & audiobooks to the incapacitated – the most used service of its kind in London. For the festival guests there are not only books to read, but also a free prosecco pump. Borges’s quote about paradise being a library acquires a vital detail.

**

Monday 4 June 2018. I call Mum: her hand is out of the plaster cast and she’s gently getting back to normal, via physiotherapy.

I have now watched A Very English Scandal twice and I am still not satisfied.

**

Tuesday 5 June 2018. Breakfast at L’Atelier, a hip café on the Kingsland Road: stripped walls, dangling light fittings, no sign outside, an unbranded bohemian atmosphere, bearded men with small dogs, a row of Mac laptops, buzzing smartphones among the flat whites.

I join the Wellcome Library in Euston, mainly to read Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado, though the library has an older edition with the author’s former female name on the cover. At the time of the book’s writing (2008), he was a butch woman taking testosterone as part of a philosophical experiment into gender.

The book is written in a poetic, fragmentary style, with much digression into memoir, theory and history, rather like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Though Nelson’s book was about the partner of a natal female taking testosterone, whereas Preciado’s is from the hormone-taker’s point of view. If The Argonauts is a gateway drug, Testo Junkie is the hard stuff.

**

Wednesday 6 June 2018. To Senate House in Malet Street, to see my mental health counsellor.

Her: What do you think needs to change?

Me: Other people.

**

In Senate House lobby there are lots of security guards standing around. To each side of the central staircase are groups of young people lying on the floor, blocking the way. Some of them are blowing whistles. These turn out to be protestors in ‘Occupy’ mode. I presume it’s to do with the recent protests against the outsourcing of cleaning staff. The protestors let me pass, thankfully. I am sympathetic with their cause, though not to the point of joining them in the dust.

A few days I later I see photographs of a Free Tommy Robinson march becoming mixed up with this year’s Naked Bike Ride. Jokes about arses suggest themselves.

I once thought of going on a march – the cause now forgotten – with a placard saying, ‘MY VIEWS ON THIS ISSUE ARE FAR TOO NUANCED FOR ONE PLACARD’.

The only proper protest march I’ve ever been on was an Anti-Nazi rally in the early 90s. I remember having whistles blown in my ear, and feeling utterly out of place. It felt – perhaps unfairly – that protest was a social pastime first, and a means of change second. It felt like you had to enjoy crowds to do them; all shouting and chanting and the joy of being the one among the many – a joy which I do not share. Perhaps I lack the Mass Protest Gene, in the same way that I lack the Glastonbury Gene. I feel awkward and unsafe in a crowd. As Quentin Crisp said, there is danger in numbers.

Dandyism is the only solution: recognizing one’s failure to join the crowd, then turning this into an identity. A protest march made up of one person. And a dandy can still vote, and sign petitions, and raise awareness.

**

Thursday 7 June 2018. To Hackney Picturehouse with Shanti to see My Friend Dahmer. Followed by a delicious meal at Mildred’s in Dalston Square, the trendy chain of vegetarian restaurants. The film is well made, if fairly standard arthouse fare: a character study of a mixed up teenager as he tries to make friends at school. Rather close to home, the murders aside.

**

Friday 8 June 2018. To the exhibition at the Peltz Gallery, Transitional States, followed by a talk with one of the artists, Raju Rage, plus a woman who’s doing a PhD on the work of Paul B. Preciado. I now realise that Preciado must have changed their name and gender identity halfway through this lady’s PhD, which must surely have had an effect on her thesis. With a PhD, as opposed to an MA, one is very much at the mercy of one’s subject, and a living subject is a moving target.

**

Monday 11 June 2018. To Gordon Square for my annual ‘monitoring’ interview, to check on my progress as a doctoral student. This is conducted by a third party tutor, Dr Caroline Edwards, rather than one of my supervisors. It all seems to go well. The failed bid for funding aside, I’ve had a fairly good first year on the PhD. Four papers accepted at conferences, plus at least 27,000 words written for the PhD itself. The trick now is, as Dr E says, to keep up the momentum.

**

Wednesday 13 June 2018. Evening: to Gordon Square at the invite of my old MA tutor, Grace Halden. I am one of four PhD students addressing a class of MA students, telling them about my experiences of doing a thesis. Grace encourages me to be honest, so I talk about the idea of worth: how the lack of funding has made me brood on thoughts of my research having no worth, and that this in turn can make me feel that I have no worth as a human being full stop. This is not a rare emotion, though, and a few of the other speakers are equally gloomy about their financial prospects. This society puts so much emphasis on, as Wilde said, ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

It’s good to be reminded that Wilde himself saw particular ‘value’ in that quote, using it in both Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan. In Lady Windermere (Act 3, said by Lord Darlington) it’s about the definition of a cynic. In Dorian, Lord Henry says ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (Chapter 3 of the 1890 magazine version, Chapter 4 of the 1891 novel version). I rather think it’s the Dorian version that applies at the moment.

Thankfully, I’m not quite as energised about this as I was a few months ago. I now focus on what I alone recognise as ‘worth’, and try to take faith from that – the Van Gogh approach, I suppose. Plus I acknowledge the worth of the fee waiver, and the unpriceable worth of my supervisor.

I still struggle with the fact that I am essentially doing an unpaid internship – for myself. But the positive spin is that this is still preferable to doing an unpaid internship for someone else.

**

Thursday 14th June 2018. I meet up with Sarah K Marr for a drink in Bloomsbury. Have just finished reading her debut novel, All the Perverse Angels. The book jumps between a contemporary narrative and a Victorian one, via diaries and letters. There is a main theme of lesbian romance, though the twentieth century protagonist’s sexuality is entirely matter-of-fact: her more pressing stigma is her mental health. She sees the world, and events and emotions and memories, first as colours, and then more specifically as known paintings. As she is the main narrator, the reader is forced to share her strange, unreliable, dream-like perspective.

The story gets going when she finds a Victorian painting in the attic of a Cotswold cottage. It’s a Pre-Raphaelite-style retelling of the Iphis and Ianthe myth from Ovid – which reminds me of Ali Smith’s similarly Sapphic version of the myth from a few years ago, Girl Meets Boy. Because of the heavy use of paintings as part of a homosexual narrative, I thought of the tradition of ekphrasis (the rendering of paintings into prose) as a queer literary device. Ekphrasis can reclaim the default framing of the world: a queer eye for the queer guy. The best example is Dorian Gray, but Wilde does it again in his short story The Portrait of Mr W. H.  Hollinghurst’s latest, The Sparsholt Affair, updates the tradition by comparing it to the present world of Tumblr and Grindr.

All the Perverse Angels is an example of lesbian ekphrasis: women falling in love with women in paintings, driven by curiosity mingled with desire and a need for self-projection. It’s closer to The Portrait of Mr W. H. than Dorian Gray, in that there’s also a puzzle to be solved. I was reminded of how much I like the genre of historical mysteries – if it’s done well. It’s a genre lately belittled by the trashy Mr Dan Brown and his imitators. A better example is Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. The theme of dream-like crushes between girls in historical settings also evokes Charlotte Sometimes and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The World Cup has begun, and it’s hard to find a single pub which isn’t commandeered by visible groups of Blokes suddenly appearing everywhere. Blokes with a capital ‘B’, with their endless reserved tables in front of TV screens. I spend my life going to classes on gender theory, queer theory, feminist issues and transgender issues, and somehow expect everyone else to be doing the same. So it’s a shock to me that there’s still men like this around today – it’s like finding out that Page 3 of the Sun is still going.

Or perhaps these men are really historians dressing up in tribute to the way men used to be, like the Sealed Knot Society (is there a society for reconstructing Civil War reconstructions? A Sealed Knot Society Society?)

I want to stand on a pub table and shout to these men, ‘But where do you stand on Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performativity?’ (Answer: ‘It’s a bit gassy’)

**

Friday 15 June 2018. Favourite films change behind your back. On re-watching Withnail & I, I find myself siding with the old ladies in the tearoom.

**
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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 Artist Known As…

Tuesday 17 May 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s to take a photo. It’s for my entry to a Birkbeck competition, which is asking for photos on the theme of ‘London Relocated’. An idea occurred to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought about the way the Vout’s club is effectively the spirit of bohemian Soho relocated, in this case a few miles east in Tower Hill. Tonight I get Sophie Parkin to pose at the bar for my hopeful little image, alongside her book on the deceased Soho club, the Colony Room. I also get my own membership card of the Colony into the shot, visible on the counter of the Vout’s bar.

Sophie tells me about the charity Little Paper Slipper, which is having a major event at Vout’s in June. This is a charity that organises therapeutic art workshops, for women affected by domestic abuse. The end result is a series of exhibitions of the eponymous slippers, each one personalised by the woman who made it. There’s about 150 of them now.  The event at Vout’s is going to be a fundraising auction, featuring shoes specially made for the charity by a group of artists, including Gavin Turk, Molly Parkin, and John Claridge.

I’m happy to help publicise the event. There’s further details at Facebook here.

There’s some fascinating photos of the workshop slippers at the charity website: www.littlepaperslipper.com/slippers.html

***

Wednesday 18 May 2016. Evening: my debut as a conceptual artist. I am given a sticker for my lapel which says: ‘Dickon Edwards – Artist’. So it must be true.

The venue is Birkbeck’s School of Arts, on the east side of Gordon Square, once home to Virginia Woolf. This week is Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week, a series of free talks and events that are open to the public. Over the cast iron railings at the main entrance are the words ‘ARTS WEEK’ rendered as huge, colourful knitted letters. I discover that this display is not, as I’d hoped, the product of an MA course in Comparative Knitting, but the handiwork of two knitting-loving administrators, Claire Adams and Catherine Catrix.

Given the building’s history, I wonder what would have happened if those fateful railings in Mrs Dalloway had been similarly wool-clad. Septimus Smith might have ended the novel in better shape. Another thought is The Muppets’ Mrs Dalloway. Starring Miss Piggy as Clarissa: ‘Moi will buy the flowers myself!’

Inside, Room 112 hosts The Contemporary: An Exhibition. This is a ‘pop-up’ show by four students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course, and addresses the question: what is ‘the contemporary’? The contributors are Kathryn Butterworth (in partnership with James Watkinson), Jassey Parmar, Dylan Williams, and myself. The event is the idea of the main course tutor, Grace Halden, who thought it would be good to have the MA represented during Arts Week.

Kathryn and James’s display is a multimedia look at technology and literature: there’s large boards covered in texts, computer diagrams, a model of DNA code, and laptops playing audio and video content. Jassey’s exhibit is a series of photographs of London shop fronts, which blend different cultures and brands in unexpected ways. Twice during the evening, Dylan performs a selection of his own poetry. And I’ve contributed a social media installation titled Is It Just Me?

I had the idea some years ago. It was one of those ideas that don’t go away. So I thought I’d either put it in a story, or just keep it in reserve, in case someone asked me to contribute to an exhibition.

So one day someone did, and here I am. A debut artist.

At the event, I give out an A4 handout to explain my thinking behind the installation. I’ve uploaded it here as a PDF:

Is it Just Me – installation handout

I also leave out a sheet of my handwritten notes for the project. I like the juxtaposition of the shifting internet content on the screen, with the fixed artifact of my handwriting on paper. Private traces of the body, versus public traces of the mind.

The event turns out to be decently attended, with tutors stopping by to say kind things. It all seems to go okay, and there’s no technical hitches, thanks to the efficiency of Birkbeck’s staff. How wonderful it is to have an idea which involves cables and equipment, but not have to worry about the cables and equipment oneself.

Here’s some photos from the course’s Facebook page (most of them taken by Lee Smith, used with permission):

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And here’s a link to the Facebook page for the MA in Contemporary Lit and Culture

***

Thursday 19th May 2016. Thinking more about Prince, and about camp uses of the colour purple, I’m reminded of this anecdote from Gary McMahon’s Camp in Literature (2006, p. 144):

‘Brigid Brophy notes that [Ronald] Firbank often wrote his tales in purple ink on blue postcards, surface and colour being everything to camp. Brophy reveals that she too wrote her critical biography of the man [Prancing Novelist, 1973] in purple ink. My working copy of Brophy’s book is on loan from Manchester University’s library. At this purple confession on page 173, a university student […] has written this response in the margin:

“Are you [Brophy] really as besotted as this? If so, we don’t want to know. At least maintain a pretence at objectivity, please.”

McMahon remarks that this student represents a certain academic sensibility ‘that is always going to be exasperated and offended by camp’.

Returning to Prince, I think of a friend’s anecdote along the same lines. When this friend was growing up in the 80s, some blokish gentleman known to them – a friend or possibly a dad – took one look at a Prince record sleeve and remarked, quite out of the blue, ‘I don’t care what he sounds like. I’m not listening to anyone who dresses like that.’

***

Friday 20th May 2016. I receive the grade for my second essay on the MA. Despite my struggles with it, I am very pleased indeed to get a 76 (a mark over 70 is a Distinction, the MA equivalent of a First). The first essay got a 73. It’s a nice boost to my confidence when I needed it most, wracked as I was with Difficult Second Term Syndrome.

For the rest of the summer, I have to get on with postgraduate-y things under my own steam, such as attending open lectures and pursuing my own research. But as far as the big assessments go, the pressure is off until the autumn.


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Diamonds and Beaus

Friday 13th May 2016. Early afternoon: I’m recognised in Jermyn Street by a gentleman who says he enjoys this diary. In fact, he crosses the street to tell me this, narrowly avoiding being run down. Surely no writer can ask for higher praise than this: a reader risking their own life to pass on a good review. Perhaps it should go on the back of a book. ‘I enjoyed Dickon Edwards so much, I was nearly hospitalised’.

He adds that he was disappointed I didn’t say more about the death of Prince, given what I’d said about Bowie a few months earlier. This is a perfectly good point.

I think one reason might be that, when I was growing up, I’d always regarded Prince as one of my brother Tom’s favourites; his territory more than mine. For some reason we divided up singers and bands between us, as if they were soft toy animals. I got to cuddle New Order, the Pixies and the Smiths, Tom had the Cult, the Beastie Boys, and Prince.

But if one loves good pop songs, and believes, as I do, that pop music is at its best when used as a platform for individuality, eccentricity, and indeed dandyism, obviously one has to admire Prince.

It’s all the more apt that this request took place on Jermyn Street. The street is something of a dandy Mecca, being home to some of London’s most stylish menswear shops, to the church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Sebastian Horsley had his funeral in a red squinned coffin, and to a statue to that most influential of London dandies, Beau Brummel. It is a statue close enough to the ground to be hugged, an act which dandyish American friends of mine make a point of doing whenever they visit.

A further coincidence is that I was on my way to the London Library, a block away in St James’s Square. After parting company with the reader, I remember that I’d once found a book on dandyism in the library, one which directly compared Prince with Beau Brummell. So today I go straight into the stacks and retrieve the book in question.

The book is called Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). As part of a chapter on the legacy of dandyism, Garelick reprints a 1995 Esquire cover, on which Prince pulls a definite dandyish pose. It’s from his Artist Formerly Known As phase, just after his hit, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. His hair at this point is short, dark, combed and straightened, with a touch of the silkily feminine (even a Hugh Grant-ish schoolboy floppiness). He has a thin pencil beard that seems an extension of his cheekbones, and wears a slim pinstripe suit, buttoned down, over a white shirt with big cuffs. He sports a dark tie (collar button undone), fingers covered in rings, and leans against a silver cane.

According to Garelick, Prince’s image at this point follows in the classic nineteenth-century dandy traits. Prince ‘borrows unmistakably from the likes of Beau Brummell, Baudelaire and Jean Lorrain’. The main criteria are his aloofness, his air of contempt for convention, and his highly stylized persona. On top of that, his 1990s adoption of an unpronounceable symbol allies him with Barbey d’Aurevilly’s idea of the dandy life: one of pure surface and symbol, an influence beyond language: the dandy is ‘that which can hardly be recounted’. Certainly, changing one’s name to an actual symbol takes that aspect of dandyism to the limit. Though I’d say Prince had already put his stamp on language by that point, given his love of turning words into single letters or numbers, as in ‘I Would Die 4 U’.

The gendered aspects of Prince’s dandyism were equally fascinating. Granted, it may not have been original for a male, black, American performer to play with femininity in the rock and pop field; one thinks of Little Richard and Rick James. But Prince used his influences in order to do as Bowie did: make something new. He especially intensified the androgynous aspects of his imagery, imbuing them with that most deviant of colours – purple.

I think of that campest of pre-war dandy writers, Ronald Firbank, and his love of writing with purple ink. I also think of Brigid Brophy taking this detail of Firbank’s so much to heart, she apparently switched to using purple ink for the longhand manuscript of Prancing Novelist, her 1973 study of Firbank. The Brophy book is 600 pages long. That’s a lot of purple.

Through these deviant codes, Prince’s dandyism became an outrageous queering of heterosexuality – a machismo-troubling version of Camp Rock which he shared with such figures as Marc Bolan, Tiny Tim and Russell Brand (who isn’t even a musician, but he hasn’t let that stop him).

Garelick’s book also compares Prince’s use of female dancers and co-singers with names as Vanity, Apollonia, and Mayte, as echoing 1890s Decadent ‘tableaux’, such as ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings of androgynous, erotic, and nearly twin creatures’. Though in Prince’s case, says Garelick, the women were not so much twins as shadows in his wake, a ‘merging of the dandy and the danseuse’.

Certainly, any woman appearing with Prince had to become remade in his image. I never saw Prince in concert, but I was interested enough to catch his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, when it hit British cinemas. For the song ‘U Got The Look’, the female role was filled by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’d already had a successful career in her own right. For ‘U Got The Look’, though, she became well and truly Prince-i-fied. From her singing to her clothes to her poses, she was not so much a guest vocalist as just another interchangeable cog in the man’s machine. When in Purple Rome, you do as the Purple Roman does.

More recently, I thought of Prince when I heard the song ‘Quicksand’ by La Roux, aka Elly Jackson, a young singer who might herself be described as a dandy (the National Portrait Gallery’s shop currently has her on a postcard, wearing a very Bowie-esque mustard yellow suit). Musically, ‘Quicksand’ is clearly influenced by ‘When Doves Cry’, from the chords to the clipped 80s synths. But Ms Jackson’s singing is a very Prince-like style too: shifting across the genders from high feminine falsetto to low, growing boyish swagger. For me, that’s when art is at its best: when there’s a breaking out of prescribed roles, and the same trappings of said roles are re-used on the artist’s own terms, to communicate their individualism. And that’s also a definition of dandyism, in my book.

***

Evening: to the ICA to see Mustang, a Turkish film, set in the present day, about five teenage orphan sisters living in what seems like an idyllic picturesque setting: a hillside village near the Black Sea coast. Their mildly rebellious behaviour during the school holidays, however, sees them dramatically punished by their guardians – first with imprisonment in their own home, complete with bars on the windows, and then into forced marriage to equally reluctant young men. The film’s sensualised, slightly surreal atmosphere accentuates the idea of a close-knit group of girls disappearing into a world of their own, thus placing the film in the same tradition as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides, and last year’s The Falling.

With the added dimension of the conservative Turkish setting, though, Mustang has more complex questions about the role of arranged marriage in a changing world. The girls’ captor, their grandmother, is no fairy tale tyrant; she merely believes that, because she herself was married off straight after puberty, that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for one of the sisters, her marriage to the boy she was already seeing is shown as a good thing, if a hasty one. For the others, though, freedom comes in the form of escape to the big city – Istanbul – and to the parent they really want: a beloved schoolteacher. The real asset of the film, though, is the utterly naturalistic and convincing performances, particularly by the youngest sister.


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Spoiler Alert: Transparent Architecture

Sunday 17th January 2016.

I’m reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle. It’s a novel that sounds an Orwellian warning about the rise of Google and Facebook. Much is made about the growing desirability of ‘transparency’. This is meant figuratively, in the sense of increased accountability. But it’s also implied architecturally, in the sense of modern workplaces tending to be cathedrals of glass. Buildings where the workers can be easily seen, and so easily monitored. The price in both cases is privacy.

Today I walk past the shiny new Central St Giles development, near the east end of Denmark Street. There is now a branch of Caffe Nero there, one so entirely made of glass that I don’t know where to put my eyes as I pass by. It’s like walking past a display case of knees and hands and lattes. I’m used to seeing this in stations like St Pancras (particularly with the all-glass Starbucks there), because of the obvious security concerns. But in a central London street it feels very odd, and very fragile.

One of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books is the idea of Diagon Alley, the secret wizards’ street in London. It seemed so deliciously believable, making imaginative use of London’s reputation as an unplanned patchwork of hidden worlds. Now, with the current trend for see-through developments like Central St Giles, the nooks and crannies can only disappear. A surfeit of glass undermines a site’s potential for secrets, intrigue, and magic. Transparency is a plot spoiler.

* * *

Monday 18th January 2016.

My review of Popkiss, the book about Sarah Records, is published in the new issue (February 2016) of the music magazine The Wire. Quite happy with it: it’s full of little points I hope will pique the interest of the casual Wire reader, someone who may be unfamiliar with Sarah. The death of Bowie is a reminder that music – of any level of success – never has a fixed reach. Never one generation, never one era, never one ear.

Bowie tributes are still appearing in the press. Some journalists use the U-word – ‘us’. It means well, but it makes me wince. Who is this ‘us’? Can you really speak for the entire human race? If so, who appointed you spokesperson? I find ‘you’ equally suspicious (‘you know how it is when you’re flying to Monaco in First Class…’). Even though it seems more vain to say ‘me’, it’s more honest and precise. Better to accept that all writing is vanity of a kind.

* * *

Tuesday 19th January 2016.

I meet with Shanthi S. in the NPG, and we wander around the National Gallery next door, taking in the free exhibition on Botticini’s sublime Assumption of the Virgin. I show S my favourite painting in the gallery, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1550-5, with the pink curtain). We bump into Sophie Parkin, who is sitting right in front of the painting.

Then to the ICA for The Revenant – a mere £3 each. Currently the most talked-about film in town, having become a favourite for the Oscars. For all its technical innovation, it’s really a traditional Western, albeit a snowy one. The story is a simple one of survival against the elements, followed by revenge. There’s plenty of stunning set pieces, presumably enhanced by state-of-the-art CGI graphics: the bear attack, the white-water rapids, the gutting of the horse, and the Saving Private Ryan-like opening, as Mr DiCaprio’s party are besieged by Native American tribesmen. Whether or not Mr DC is putting in an Oscar-winning performance really depends on one’s definition of acting. He certainly suffers, but his character isn’t much more than that – just a man who has a terrible time. He grunts, he gasps, he crawls. He does things that regularly has the audience saying ‘Ouch!’, and ‘Goodness, that must be painful!’ and ‘Don’t hurt, though!’

There’s been a few articles which employ the irksome trend of adding ‘porn’ as a suffix. This seems to be a way of judging any film that a critic views as indulgent. The Revenant has been described variously as ‘pain porn’, ‘torture porn’, ‘wilderness porn’, and ‘forest porn’. Certainly all those elements are present in the film, and to an intense level, but calling them a form of ‘porn’ is helpful to precisely no one. Whatever happened to discussions of catharsis?

It’s also too long. My father used to judge films on the amount of times he looked at his watch. He once told me how he didn’t do this once during Lord of the Rings Part 3 – Return of the King, despite the three hour-plus duration. ‘That’s how good it was’. I’m afraid I checked my own watch four or five times during The Revenant.  For all its focus on immersion, it really doesn’t need two and a half hours to tell such a straightforward tale.

* * *

Thursday 21st January 2016.

To Gordon Square for this week’s MA seminar. The text is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs. There’s several witty scenes consisting entirely of overheard dialogue between middle-class liberals, on such topics as the state of racism after 9/11. To me, these come close to Ronald Firbank, though it’s a style better known from his disciple, Evelyn Waugh. According to DJ Taylor’s new book The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918 (which I’ve been leafing through), one legacy Firbank ‘bequeathed’ to fiction in the 1910s and 1920s is his ‘talking heads’ device. This is a depiction of a conversation as a long series of detached utterations, in which no speaker is named, and where there’s a sense of a satirical rhythm at play. The ‘chattering classes’ in action, then as now.

Not everyone in the seminar is enamoured of Moore’s use of humour for serious issues, though: one student even calls it ‘irritating’. This is always a risk, but it’s why I admire comedy, or comedy drama, over wholly dramatic texts. Comedy is hard to get right, but the best comedy can produce rich, lasting, soaring effects. Tragedy is closer to ground level.

In A Gate At The Stairs there’s also some scenes of violent death, and some occasionally grotesque imagery. But Moore manages to control the tone at every stage, and it’s never jarring. Knowing what happens also makes a second reading all the more rewarding: early details take on a pleasing new significance. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and it makes me want to read more of Ms Moore.

* * *


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Xmas Week Diary and Christmas Message 2013

Friday 20th December 2013. I am pleased to receive about two dozen cards this year, made all the more special by the high cost of postage and the dominance of the internet. Post from abroad is especially meaningful: I’m sent a beautiful pop-up one from Eileen C in New York and a pictorial Christmas aerogramme from Danika H in Australia.

Although people rarely send cards and letters today, two Christmas books this year on the subject have proved to be very popular. There’s Shaun Usher’s anthology Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s historical account, To The Letter. The Usher book is based on his website, where the very technology that killed off the letter – the internet – has turned out to be perfect for celebrating it. I feel all the more grateful for receiving an actual letter at Christmas, from Danika, and I’ll make sure I reply in kind.

Another sign of the times this week: the gay section in Time Out magazine has been axed. It’s assumed that, like cinema listings, there’s no longer any need to turn to a paper magazine to find out about events: Facebook events pages and online listings have become the default. Gay issues, meanwhile, are more mainstream than ever, with Conservative politicians supporting campaigns for gay marriage, and campaigns against homophobia around the world (such as in Russia and Uganda) given decent coverage by the media. This week has also seen Alan Turing finally pardoned for the crime of having consensual sex with another man. His mistake was to have it in the 1950s. Actually, as my dad once told me, it was pretty much frowned on to have sex in the 1950s if you were heterosexual, too.

But the question of promoting gay culture separately in terms of identity and role models is an ongoing one. As it is, London still has its annual LGBT film festival (at the BFI) and its own gay bookshop (Gay’s The Word in Marchmont Street – hitting 35 years old next January). Coming out as gay is still a big issue – Tom Daley making the headlines of late. So Time Out’s decision does seem premature. But then, like all paper listings magazines, it’s been struggling full stop.

* * *

Saturday 21st December 2013. To Somerset House with Ella Lucas, to see the exhibition on the late British fashion editor, collector, string-puller, muse and Lady Gaga lookalike, Isabella Blow. Ingeniously, the exhibits that can’t go on mannequins, such as letters and faxes, are in white display cases which sit surreally on mannequin legs – with shoes from Ms Blow’s collection on the cases’ feet. One letter, on Harpers notepaper, is from Hamish Bowles, who is also one of the other dandies in the I Am Dandy book. He writes to Ms Blow, ‘Long for your next appearance – stepping out of a reverie by Ronald Firbank…’

Much of the exhibition is of Philip Treacy’s exotic hat and mask creations, Ms Blow being his biggest champion. One mask has a grid of jewelled Swarovski crystal nails in a black silk net, rather reminding me of the Pinhead monster in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I check the caption, and it turns out to be a direct homage: ‘Hellraiser mask with nail detailing’. Any exhibition which references Ronald Firbank and Hellraiser is fine by me.

A word learned: ‘chopine’. A historical type of women’s platform shoe, popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. Modern versions of which are in the Blow collection. More like a platform clog, really.

One of the information panels on Ms Blow’s history begins with the phrase ‘Forced to work for a living…’

* * *

Sunday 22nd December 2013. I visit the Museum of London, and am pleased to see that its shop stocks A London Year, the diary anthology which includes me alongside Pepys and co. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to being a museum piece.

On the raised pedestrian walkway around the corner, I take a look at the ruins of the original London Wall, where the layers of medieval brickwork can be seen on top of the Roman foundations. There’s an information panel about the ruins, provided by the museum. It’s dated 1980 and has been laminated against the elements, though 33 years later the elements have won, and much of the text is now faded and illegible. The panel about the ruins is itself a ruin.

In the evening I turn a corner in Clerkenwell Green and suddenly see the Shard and St Paul’s from a distance, both lit up. From this angle they appear as if standing right next to each other, though the Thames and several districts separate them geographically. Tonight the former looks like a Christmas tree, and the latter like a bauble. I stare up from the silent street at them, thinking how London always was this constant shrug of old with new, just like the two parts to the Wall and the ruined panel. Inside the Crown Tavern, more shrugging: Wizzard’s eternal Christmas song on the pub stereo, while the first word I overhear as I enter is someone saying  ‘Facebook’.

* * *

Monday 23rd December 2013.

The London Library’s last day before closing for Christmas, and the last day of its late night hours, closing at 9pm. It transpires that not enough members use the library quite that late, so in 2014 ‘late closing’ will mean 8pm instead. I sit in the historic Reading Room from 8.30pm till the end, which as expected means I am the only one there. Just me, all the books and journals, the famous soporific armchairs, the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. Utter, serene peace. I soak it in.

As soon as I leave, though: chaos. Heavy wind and rain has hit Britain, causing transport shut downs and power cuts at the worst possible time of year. Although the effect on London is relatively minor, my umbrella is a wreck before I make it out of St James’s Square. At Piccadilly Circus, where I get the tube, the clear plastic bubble over Eros has burst, scattering polystyrene chips of fake snow all over the road. Like some Biblical retribution against worshipping false gods, this idealised image of Christmas weather – pretty fake snow in a bubble – has been eclipsed by real Christmas weather – ugly, uncontained wind and rain.

* * *

Tuesday 24th December 2013.

To the Hackney Picturehouse to see a 1940s Christmas-themed film I’d not seen before, The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays an angel helping a troubled New York priest, played by David Niven. Despite his otherworldly role, Cary Grant is just dressed as Cary Grant, with the usual immaculate dark suit. One character is an eccentric aged scholar,  an atheist who nevertheless loves the traditions of Christmas. On discovering Cary G’s celestial identity, he remarks ‘Oh, that’s annoying.’ I think that’s how I’d feel.

Even though the story centres on David Niven’s bishop, the film’s parting message about Jesus feels unusual, even jarring. Yet I remember how it works fine in The Holly and The Ivy, a British film from the early 50s, also about priests at Christmas. I think the fact that Niven’s daughter is played by ‘Zuzu’ from It’s A Wonderful Life reminds me why: American films are happy to tell Christmas stories about angels, but they usually leave out Christ himself.

It’s still an issue today. I read a piece in the Guardian this week where an American writer remarks how the British are perfectly happy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, as opposed to ‘Happy Holidays’, regardless of religion – or lack of it – of those present. It’s just tradition. But among the cards from British people I get, some are indeed saying ‘Happy Holidays’, so perhaps that’s changing.

The first time I saw the word ‘holidays’ used to mean Christmas was in a TV advert. The product was that great ambassador of the American way, Coca-Cola. That may be another reason why ‘Happy Holidays’ has yet to catch on: for some (and I include myself), it feels too American.

* * *

Wednesday 25th December 2013. I spend Christmas by myself in Highgate, once again enjoying the palpable and rare peace in the city. The changed background hum of low traffic without buses. Morning spent hungover from mixing prosecco and Baileys the night before. I chat to Mum at length on the phone.

At 1pm, I meet up with Silke R once again for my own tradition of feeding the ducks in Waterlow Park. Silke is currently staying in the flat attached to Archway Video, the film rental library on Archway Road where we both once worked. An independent family business since the 1980s, the shop stocked a huge range of films, first on VHS, then DVD, and eventually, Blu-Ray. The customers included Daniel Craig, Maureen Lipman, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Brett Anderson of Suede. This year, the shop is an empty shell, closed for good since the summer. Silke now works for Odeon, an irony given that video shops were first thought to be bringing about the death of cinema. It wasn’t cinema that killed video shops, though, but online services like Lovefilm, Netflix, and of course Amazon.

In Muswell Hill a few months ago I bumped into one of the shop’s old customers. ‘I do miss that shop,’ he said fondly. ‘Though of course I hadn’t been in for years.’ He didn’t seem to notice how one statement was related to the other.

Thursday 26th December 2013.

With the lack of traffic on Boxing Day, combined with the sense of enforced family gatherings reaching the point of strained boredom, some local teenagers play football in the street outside. I first worry about them breaking any windows, but then I realise that young people playing ball games in the road is very old indeed. All the museum photos say so.

I walk around St Pancras in the afternoon. Most of the people I see fall into two categories. There’s aimlessly wandering tourists, who seem baffled that everything is shut for a second day. A handful of them climb on the gates of the British Library to take photos of the empty piazza. The other category is football fans, because Boxing Day means sport. People in Chelsea scarves are looking particularly pleased with themselves.

Friday 27th December 2013.

CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2013.

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This year’s photograph of me with a London tree is of course a ‘selfie’, one of 2013’s Words of the Year. With thanks to the London Review Bookshop for letting me take it on their premises on Christmas Eve.

The bookshop tree represents not just my current life as a student of literature, but my increasing concern about the effect of digital culture on independence, in every sense. On a blunt commercial level, the online tax-dodging colossus that is Amazon is obviously threatening the future of independent, non-corporate shops like the LRB. Bookshops, like cinemas and libraries, are pleasant places for staff to work in and for customers to go and immerse themselves in culture, at their own pace, offline and away from the ubiquity of the computer screen. No advertising sidebars tearing your concentration to shreds. One book I bought at the LRB this year was The Circle by Dave Eggers, which paints a near-future world where Amazon and Google and social media have reduced people’s lives to a banal flatness of public algorithms and vanished privacy.

This theme also connects neatly with Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message by Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing fugitive of the USA security services. Mr Snowden cited another novel about a world without privacy, 1984, and said some rather powerful things:

‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought… And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.’

The Queen’s own Christmas message also touched on the need for personal time alone, though she linked it more with prayer and meditation.  Certainly a child born today in the case of baby Prince George has even less privacy than most children, but the point stands. What grabbed my attention with the Queen’s message was that she also mentioned ‘even keeping a diary’ as an example of creating a space for private reflection. Which is where I come in.

This year saw my online diary’s first emergence in book form, in the form of extracts in the anthology A London Year. Like the books about letters, it’s a celebration of individual minds reflecting in privacy. Their words are only later published when the appropriate permissions have been sought, and when an editor has done their own reflecting on what part of private writing might, as Shuan Usher puts it, be ‘deserving of a wider audience’. An amount of consideration and reflection has been applied, in other words. Although my own diary is published online first, it actually begins life as a series of far more personal notes made in my own paper notebooks. And even when published online, I try to evoke the more private nature of the printed page by the omission of one key element: no comments box.

A blog with no comments is as close to the reflective, personal and locked-off experience of the printed page as it can get. If you write online, I highly recommend it. Let comments belong on social media. Writing and reading are after all anti-social activities, and need to be. Humans are social creatures, but socialising needs to be kept apart from the production and consumption of writing. The more people can disconnect by way of balance, the better.

(I’ve now realised that Mr Usher also omits a comments box from his Letters of Note website too.)

It’s rather impractical to call for a boycott of Amazon, Google and social media now, and I wouldn’t want to. I use those things all the time myself. But my wish for 2014 is to try to resist the technology that wants us to only live through an endless scrolling of screens, that only what matters is to join the shallow noise, the unconsidered chatter, the indiscretion, the unkind photos passed around at the expense of others and the Fear of Missing Out. I wish to balance these activities with more appreciation of three beautiful ‘I’s: individualism, independence and immersion.

And I wish you a very happy what’s-left-of-Christmas, and a splendid New Year.


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The Charm Of The College Flick

Wednesday: Last research day spent in libraries, for the essay on gendering literature. I seem to have developed an unusually sensible inner voice for the essay process. It tells me exactly when it’s time to stop researching and start knocking the first draft into shape, while still allowing for time to do further drafts and polishing. The most important thing about this voice is that I appear to be listening to it.

Also today: I meet Charley Stone for lunch in the café in Russell Square. The café is old fashioned and non-franchise, something which is getting increasingly rare in central London. There are rumours the Olympics are going to shut down whole squares like this, making them into temporary media bases for the duration.

Charley and I chat about My Bloody Valentine, whose remastered Creation back catalogue seems to be finally coming out next week, four years late. She mentions an interview with Kevin Shields where he talks about the remastering in highly technical terms, at least for the average musician. But of course Mr Shields is no average musician:

http://www.pitchfork.com/features/interviews/8809-kevin-shields/

Evening: To the Aubin Cinema in Shoreditch – Zone 1’s smallest single-screen cinema for new releases. Very comfortable it is, too: they give you foot stalls in the front row, so you can pretty much lie down. Also present: Alex Mayor, Travis E, Emily B, John Noi.

We see Damsels In Distress, the new Whit Stillman film. I’m such a huge fan of his debut, Metropolitan, and loved The Last Days Of Disco, the last film he managed to make, which was about fifteen years ago. Damsels isn’t up there with those two, I feel, but it’s as good as Barcelona, his mid-90s film. Same uniquely old-fashioned and deliberately stagey dialogue, same bookish quips about broken hearts, but not quite enough character depth and narrative flow compared to Metropolitan and Disco. Still, I laughed a lot, which is usually a good sign for a comedy. And as films about US college students speaking in stylised retorts go, I far prefer Damsels over The Social Network. Damsels has its faults, but more than makes up for them with sheer charm. Plus there’s a glimpse of a class on Ronald Firbank, always a good thing in my book.

Mayoral election tomorrow. It is upsetting to think that thousands of Londoners might vote for a right wing Mayor once again, mistaking a buffoonishly inept but entertaining dinner party guest for a capable governor of the most complicated metropolis on earth. Still, one must remain optimistic. It’s not as if Boris Johnson will vanish from public life if he loses – he’ll be back guest presenting Have I Got News For You within days. Which is really why the celebrity-obsessed voted for him last time, after all. And where he should have stayed.


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