A PhD In Flux

Monday 5th March 2018. In bed for most of the day, laid low with despair and anxiety. Still struggling with a lack of purpose, a lack of money, and a lack of knowing what best to do about it all.

**

Tuesday 6th March 2018. To the Rio for Lady Bird, the Greta Gerwig film. Fairly straightforward coming-of-age fare; funny and poignant. Not a patch on her wonderful Frances Ha, which I went to see twice. But enjoyable enough. There’s an unexpected pleasure in the form of Sondheim songs, performed as part of a school musical. It’s like the secret helpings of Britten one stumbles upon in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

**

Thursday 8th March 2018. Researching George Barbier, the Art Deco artist and Beardsley collector, whose work is on the cover of the forthcoming Firbank edition from Picador. Despite the 1920s fizzy beauty of his work, books on Barbier aren’t easy to come by. So I make my first visit to the Courtauld library, part of Somerset House on the Strand. The place has a higher ratio than usual of elegantly dressed female students, so balletic and pristine that they seem to have not so much enrolled as floated off the shelves. One or two even wear berets.

I am reading Author Hunting (1934), the second memoir by Grant Richards, publisher of Ronald Firbank. Richards is often painted as the villain in the story, only agreeing to publish Firbank’s strange, experimentally camp novels if the author paid for the production costs out of his own pocket. Brigid Brophy calls Richards a ‘publisher’ in inverted commas throughout her huge book on Firbank, Prancing Novelist. Alan Hollinghurst calls him ‘unscrupulous’. Even the Times obituary, which was written by a friend, said Richards had a ‘recurrent lack of scruple’. I see him as closer to certain indie record bosses: Anthony H Wilson of Factory Records springs to mind. People who are dodgy when it comes to paying their artists or dealing with money full stop (Richards went bankrupt twice). Yet ultimately they’re still fans, allies and enablers of art. Often they are the only ones making the art exist at all.

Richards not only published Firbank when no one else would do so, but also Lord Alfred Douglas’s poems when Wilde was out of prison. Plus all of AE Housman’s poems, and Joyce’s Dubliners, which he somehow fails to mention in his memoirs.

In 1917 Richards took out a regular advert in the Times Literary Supplement, one that was cleverly disguised as an opinion column. He would gossip about life in publishing, plugging his own titles in the process. Today one would called this ‘sponsored content’ or ‘advertorials’. It’s possible that Richards may have invented the idea. These days he would an active tweeter.

**

Monday 12 March 2018. Bad news from Birkbeck: my application for a PhD maintenance grant on the PhD is unsuccessful, for the second year running. This is despite my doing everything I was told to do last year, when I was told I came close to being accepted. I joined extra reading groups, I got accepted at conferences, and I did my best on the MA. In fact, I got the course prize for being the best student on the MA that year. But evidently this still wasn’t enough.

So today I’m demoralized. I drown my sorrows at Mangal 2 with Shanthi and Paul, her partner, before being slightly cheered up by seeing I Tonya across the road at the Rio. The film manages to balance its self-aware moments of camp bitchery with serious ideas about class, domestic abuse, and the pain of public shaming. The scene in front of the mirror is remarkable, with Margot Robbie (the lead) valiantly daubing on her make-up and practicing her smile, all the time fighting back tears. Well, that’s how I feel now, particularly when smiling politely at the Birkbeck tutors I pass in Gordon Square, some of whom would have been behind the decision not to fund me.

On the plus side, I do have five years of the PhD fees paid for by the smaller fee-waiving grant I won last year, so I can’t claim to feel entirely rejected by academia. And my supervisor is attentive and encouraging. And it’s not as if the world of paid work is exactly kicking down my door.

A PhD maintenance grant is 16K – the minimum wage, effectively. The recommended London Living Wage is about £20k. But I’m a cheap date, still fine with renting rooms at the age of 46. I hope I can find it from some alternative funding body, or make it up through smaller amounts. My research is on Firbank and modernist camp, so there might be a LGBT charity out there who could be interested.

Two other options would involve abandoning the PhD altogether:

(1) finding a pre-funded PhD in a similar but different subject – and successfully applying for it; or

(2) finding a full-time paid job which I’m actually suited for. That elusive dream!

Another idea is to start a Patreon page, offering little self-published books of my arts writing, as rewards for the support. Fully annotated and indexed collections of essays, like Woolf’s Common Reader or Waugh’s essay on the Pre-Raphaelites, which his friend had printed up for him at Oxford, and which led to his career proper. This way my research could be made available in a way that would actually remunerate me: professional academic publishing is notoriously underpaid.

The first such book would be called Dorian’s Book, Irene’s Coat. It would feature my essays on The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. Not quite as niche as Firbank.

**

Friday 16 March 2018. I give a paper on camp, Firbank, and Aubrey Beardsley at a conference on Beardsley, Mary Ward House, Tavistock Place. Unpaid work, of course, though I do enjoy it on this occasion. Go for dinner afterwards with the other speakers, including Kate Hext, scholar on decadence from Exeter University. Talking to others about my funding woes, I get the same sort of answer: academia is so competitive, the arts subjects even more so. My abiding impression is that the system seems designed to put people off rather than attract them. And yet there’s more students than ever.

Kate H’s paper points out how Beardsley is on the cover of Sgt Pepper, and that his prints are mentioned as a girl’s choice of decoration in a Rod Stewart hit, ‘You’re in My Heart’ (1977). Similarly there’s a scene in Carry On Girls (1970 ish) in which Terry Scott is trying to seduce a girl in a fashionable London flat. The walls are covered in Beardsley prints. Two types of camp at the same time, high and low.

Another note from today: with all that black and white art, it’s easy to forget that Beardsley himself had red hair.

**

Thursday 22 March 2018. My former landlady Ms JW tells me that the house in Highgate, where I lived in one bedsit for 23 years, has now been converted back into a single home and sold, to a family with three young children. I think of the ending of the film Exhibition. Ms J adds that during the house’s sixty-year history as a building of rented bedsits, about a hundred people must have lived there.

**

Friday 23 March 2018. A meeting at Gordon Square with my supervisor. Then to the BFI Southbank for a couple of films in the LGBT ‘Flare’ festival: They, a quiet, ethereal study of a trans teenager, and The Carmilla Movie, a colourful, campy spin-off of a low budget web series. Very Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also very arch in a distinctly queer way. Someone makes a joke: one sign of a lesbian-made film – the credits are full of Jessicas.

**

Saturday 24 March 2018. Still brooding over the funding. I find myself looking up which of my post-war heroes had PhDs, not counting honorary ones. Far fewer than I thought. One who did was Christine Brooke-Rose. She probably wrote her thesis entirely in anagrams.

Susan Sontag taught, but never completed her doctorate, which shocks me. Hollinghurst taught at UCL and had a Master’s from Oxford, but no doctorate. Angela Carter and William Burroughs likewise. See also Will Self and Martin Amis. In her latest book of essays Zadie Smith says modestly that although she teaches a MFA course in New York, she has no MFA herself. She fears she has ‘no real qualifications’ to pronounce on literature. It’s tempting to think Will Self would have made the same statement into a boast.

Birkbeck only let you teach a class once you’ve ‘upgraded’ on the PhD course. This is the halfway point, where you submit a large chunk of your thesis and have it approved as good enough to continue.

I can’t stop thinking about William Burroughs. No PhD, he shot a woman dead, and he still got work as a teacher.

**

Friday 30 March 2018. When researching on a deeper level, checking the sources of the sources, one realises just how many errors there are in scholarly books. Today it’s a recent Penguin Classics introduction. This has quotations from letters which I realise have just been copied out of an old biography. The writer – an academic – hasn’t checked the full original letters. I have, and I can see he’s made a few (minor) mistakes. So that boosts my confidence somewhat.

**

Saturday 31 March 2018. With Mum to Cambridge to see the newly refurbished Kettle’s Yard. My favourite painting is by Christopher Wood, Boy with Cat (1926). I had no previous knowledge of Wood but am delighted to discover his work is very much compatible with my interests: the 1920s, queer bohemian circles and so on. The beautiful, tie-wearing Boy in question is one of the twins that inspired Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles.

**

Sunday 1 April 2018. To the Shakespeare’s Head for Shanthi’s birthday. The pub is in Arlington Way, round the back of Sadler’s Wells. It’s the sort of old fashioned showbiz pub one now rarely finds: walls covered in signed photos of light entertainment stars. Danny La Rue, Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Roy Hudd.

**

Wednesday 4 April 2018. Evidence of the ‘zero hours’ economy. With Shanthi to the Rio for The Square. A satire on the art world, like a kind of Swedish Nathan Barley, with touches of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital. Quite original and engrossing, but goes on for too long. So much so that Shanthi loses out on a temping job she had applied for that day. Shanthi says that the only reason she didn’t check her phone for emails was because the film was longer than she’d thought. Her would-be employer expected her to reply at once to the job offer, at 8pm in the evening, or he’d give it to someone else. So that’s what happened. There’s a satirical scene right there.

The same day I say no to appearing on BBC Radio 4. It would have been an unpaid task anyway: a magazine programme about PhD arts students; asking why there are too many, and why it’s hard to get the funding, and so on. I decline partly because I’m still sore about the funding, and might say something that would make things worse. But also because my thoughts on doing a PhD at all are currently in flux.

**

Sunday 8 April 2018. To the Constitution pub in St Pancras Way for Kath G’s birthday. It’s at Debbie Smith’s club, The Nitty Gritty. I chat to Deb Googe, who’s preparing to play with My Bloody Valentine at this year’s Meltdown (as curated by Robert Smith of the Cure). She says she sometimes bumps into her fellow MBV member Bilinda Butcher in the audiences of West End musicals, of all things. Half a Sixpence, An American in Paris, those sort of shows.

I wonder if there should be a MBV jukebox musical, where their distinctive white noise sound is replicated along with the songs. This isn’t so far-fetched: MBV once covered ‘We Have All The Time In The World’, the James Bond song. I can imagine an album: My Bloody Valentine Perform Hits From The Shows.

**

Wednesday 11 April 2018. Hair bleached at the Tony and Guy Academy, New Oxford Street. Only £25, but the risk is that the student may get it wrong. And they do: after nearly 4 hours I come away with a pale reddish-gold colour, darker than the shade I usually have. The student played safe and put too weak a level of peroxide in the mix. But I should be grateful to have such resilient hair full stop.

**

Sunday 15 April 2018. With Jennifer Hodgson, she of the Ann Quin story collection, to Café Oto in Dalston for a gig by The Pastels. Support is by Eva Orleans, a spellbinding Polish performer. The Pastels do ‘Through Your Heart’ and ‘If I Could Tell You’, so that’s me happy. Say hello to Clare Wadd, Jon Slade, Beth and Bobby from Trembling Blue Stars, Paul Kelly, and Debsey. Faces from my past, I suppose, though as I’m still struggling to have a present (by which I mean a career), I don’t feel ready to admit to a past. For me, the present is a foreign country too.

**

Tuesday 17 April 2018. My MA diploma arrives in the mail. I am out when it arrives so have to collect it from a mysterious and barely signposted delivery office, deep among the residential streets of Stamford Hill. As in Golders Green, many of the locals are in Hasidic Jewish apparel: the men and boys in black hats and coats, with beards and side curls. In fact, the same beards are now fashionable with all men in East London.

Fashion is also a faith: the joy of conformity, of taking instructions, and so belonging. It’s fair to say, in my white suit and bleached hair and defiant lack of beard, I stand out even more than usual.

**

Thursday 19 April. To the Royal Festival Hall for Stewart Lee – Content Provider. Ticket: a very reasonable £19. I suppose this is where I feel I do belong, being a Stewart Lee fan. And yet I feel so alienated by the teeming hordes of blokish un-weird men around me, in the identical look of beards, backpacks and shorts, that I nearly go home in the interval. As it is, when Mr Lee does his usual remarks about attracting too many non-fans, this time blaming the Friends of the Southbank Mailing List, he really seems to be right. On the way in I see a group of men consulting a print-out, with one of them saying, ‘So we’re seeing this guy called… Stewart Lee?’. People heckle his anti-Brexit remarks (the heckle being: ‘It was voted for by ORDINARY PEOPLE!). When he goes into one of his extended ramblings, someone shouts ‘Get on with it!’ Would they do so at a Samuel Beckett play?

What I don’t understand is why someone would pay £20 to see an act they have zero knowledge about. Or if, as Mr Lee suggests, they are only there because a friend or partner has dragged them along, why do such ‘friends’ forget about the existence of different tastes?

Though I suppose that’s the lot of many relationships. I once went to see the film of The Hobbit (or one of them). As the lights went down, the man next to me said to his wife: ‘I’ve no idea what this is about’.

He spent most of the film miserably looking at his phone. I wanted to tell his wife, who was clearly the Hobbit Fan in the marriage: ‘If you love someone, set them free’.

**

Friday 20 April 2018. Wrote a book review for The Wire. Margo Jefferson on Michael Jackson. She quotes John Gielgud: ‘Style is knowing what play you’re in’.

**

Sunday 22 April 2018. I delete my Facebook account, taking care to download my photos first.

One reason was the increasingly sinister reports about Mr Zuckerberg and his chums. They’re currently being hauled over the coals for farming out people’s data to third parties. Another was the increasingly cluttered interface, which recalled the last days of MySpace (so much for lessons learned). The posts of friends were becoming hard to find among all the adverts.

A further reason was the way photos from my past were being spontaneously regurgitated by algorithms, to remind me what I was doing this time five years ago, or whenever. I suppose the hoped-for emotion is gratitude (‘Look at me back then!’). But because the memory-jolting is not only unsolicited but performed by a machine, my emotion is closer to horror. I have enough of a problem putting my present into order, without having my memories toyed with by a website.

A further reason still, though, is that I’m just curious to see whether going without Facebook will make me happier, or less happy, or will have no effect whatsoever. There is only one way to find out.

I’m still on Twitter, which at least is easier to navigate.

I also need to get my mailing list up and running again: that’s the way to get information to people.

**

Mon 23 April 2018. Read an article about the fuss over The Simpsons character Apu, and whether or not he has become an outdated racial stereotype. I think of Mickey Rooney’s Japanese character in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and how that became increasingly unwatchable over time. The columnist bemoans how one cannot be a ‘woolly liberal’ anymore: it’s either join in with the accusers, or be labelled as tacitly supporting the sin under discussion. I don’t think things are that extreme, but certainly online there’s a sense of constantly having to take up binary positions. The internet encourages ‘conversation’, but it rarely is an actual conversation. More like an exchange of jerking knees.

**

Thursday 26 April 2018. My MA graduation ceremony, held at the Royal National Hotel in Bedford Way, Bloomsbury. Mum bravely attends, her wrist currently in plaster after a fall last Sunday.

My course prize is announced as I go up to shake hands with the Master of Birkbeck. I also meet up with my fellow ‘study buddy’ students Craig and Hafsa. Last summer we helped each other along on our dissertations, making suggestions for structure and footnotes, and having our own little ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions. It’s a kind of positive shaming strategy: so much harder to avoid work if you’ve promised to show it to your friends.

**

My former MA tutor Grace H asks me if she can use an excerpt from my dissertation in her class, as an example of ‘outstanding practice’. She says that to show it to the current students ‘would really help their development’. I agree, of course, and feel honoured.

Still not sure if I’m the right sort of person to be a classroom teacher. I can’t do crowd control, so that rules out teaching teens and children. (I could never say, ‘It’s your own time you’re wasting’ without wanting to get into a philosophical discussion). Lectures and talks, certainly. One to one tutoring? Possibly.  But as in the case of my dissertation being used to teach future students, I think I’m best suited to writing things, and putting them out there, and hopefully people getting something out of them. The tricky part, though, is how to do this and get paid.

**

Friday 27 April 2018. To the Tate Britain for the exhibition All Too Human. A rather vague and random theme, to do with London art schools (I think), which somehow connects nude studies with London street scenes. Anything to justify rounding up lots of Bacons and Freuds – those crowd pulling names. Plus a few other British artists of the last century: Jenny Saville supplies a portrait of a big, sweaty, fleshy face. I still can’t stand many of the Freuds, especially the one with the girl strangling the kitten, to the point where I wonder if it’s just the surname that got him his esteem. To be a Freud must certainly open doors, or at least raise eyebrows.

One painting is of Dalston, by Kossoff: Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction, Summer 1974. It’s so abstract, though, a bafflement of splodges, that I can’t tell which street is which. Or indeed, which way up the canvas is.

**

Saturday 28 April 2018. In the London Library, working on Chapter 1 of the thesis. Still more research to be done. Always my problem: when to stop looking things up and start turning the notes into prose.

I find myself going down rabbit holes of inquiry, ones which have no reason to ever end. Lately it’s been Angus Wilson, who not only was described as camp before Sontag’s essay, but who also wrote about writing in a camp style himself, in 1963.

Wilson also uses the French word chichi as a synonym for camp. When Proust used chichi in A la recherche, Scott-Moncrieff translated it simply as ‘camp’.  This was the late 1920s: not quite the first appearance of the term in fiction (Robert McAlmon got there in 1923) but still daringly early. It was proof that Scott-Moncrieff was either au fait with queer slang, or (as seems to be the case) he was of that inclination himself.

**

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A Question Of Misattribution

Saturday 3rd January 2015. Current work: revisions to the essay on The Great Gatsby. Slow progress. I break it up with watching the film versions, both on offer in Fopp’s DVD sales. Baz Lurhmann’s version is, for me, preferable to the Robert Redford one, if only because it manages to represent the moment where Gatsby enters the text as an unknown party guest, without Nick (and the reader) realising who’s speaking. Typically, Luhrmann turns it from a subtle, anticlimactic moment into an over-the-top dramatic entrance, but I rather like that. We glimpse diCaprio’s hands and chin amongst the party mayhem before he turns to the camera to say – as Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue skids to a cartoonish stop -‘I’m Gatsby’. Cue fireworks. The Redford version just has Gatsby summoning Nick to his room.

* * *

Archway Video library, where I worked in the mid-2000s, is now a nail bar.

* * *

Sunday 4th January 2015. Procrastination today: reading The Observer. Large interview with Stewart Lee. It’s one where they get readers to send in questions, then top them up with ‘celebrity fan’ questions too. I always wonder what this format is meant to signify: a shoring-up of the impermeable spheres of fame and non-fame? I used to be unnerved by those ‘Evening With’ TV shows where the camera would cut to a famous face in the audience. How is the viewer meant to react to this? Be grateful? Know your place as a non-celebrity?

As it is, SL discusses his own particular strange kind of celebrity – much loved by liberal broadsheet readers, barely heard of by others. He is convinced that sometimes those who do recognise him aren’t even sure who he is: he’s signed autographs as ‘Richard Herring’, and they’ve not noticed. The Observer sub-editors then insert brackets to explain who Richard Herring is (“Lee’s former comedy partner”).

I think of the time in the mid 1990s I was recognised in Virgin Megastore by a cashier, and asked to give my autograph on a till receipt. The cold, shrugging atmosphere of this encounter left me in no doubt that the staffer wasn’t interested in my band in the slightest. He just recognised me from the music papers and felt he had to do something. Hence the half-hearted autograph. Now people demand a photo (Or, I imagine they do…).

* * *

Tuesday 6th January 2015. Evening: first class of the new term – the last ever full term, in fact. Tonight’s text: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. It’s the sort of book I’d never usually read. Which is one of the reasons why I did the course in the first place. Malcolm X turns out to be far more complicated than I’d imagined: he changes his mind about aspects of separatism after he becomes well-known, which is something the great speakers of history are not usually thought to do. This makes him both frustrating and endearing. There’s a line towards the end of his book where he regrets never having gone to university. It makes his work a perfect set text for adult education.

* * *

I hand in the Gatsby essay after five drafts. Glad to see the back of it.

* * *

Wednesday 7th January 2015. Shocking events in Paris: a team of terrorists murder cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo magazine. All I can think of by way of a first response is that I’m glad London has a whole museum dedicated to the important tradition of cartoon art. (http://www.cartoonmuseum.org/)

* **

Evening: lecture on 1960s cultural changes by Professor Luckhurst. Then to the Camden Odeon with Shanthi S, to see Birdman. Before the film we have a drink in The Good Mixer nearby. It must be at least ten years since I was last there. In the mid 90s it was something of a well-known hang-out for the Britpop crowd. Today it’s refreshingly ungentrified – slightly rougher, if anything. All that’s different is a number of paintings on the wall of Amy Winehouse, Morrissey, Graham from Blur and so on. A little heritage, but not too much.

Birdman turns out to be fantastic. I’ve always liked films in which actors play actors, but I didn’t realise it was going to be shot in long single takes too, a la Rope (my favourite Hitchcock). The camera swoops around a Broadway theatre, backstage, onstage, the wings, and occasionally outside to the bar next door. Very witty script; Edward Norton as a pretentious stage-only actor is superb. Particularly love the scene where he’s revealed in his dressing room, lying in a full size suntan machine while reading Borges’s Labyrinths. When the lights go up I’m a little unsteady on my feet, such is the effect of the constant bird-like camerawork.

* * *

Thursday 8th January 2015. Much debate about free speech, in the wake of the Paris attacks. That Voltaire quote gets dragged out once again, though there’s no proof he said it: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. It’s one of those quotes that sound powerful in the quoting, but which haven’t quite been thought through. To disapprove of something means you must believe in something you do approve of; in which case you’re probably going to want to give your life to that first, as a matter of priority. And there’s just not enough hours in the day to defend everything you disagree with. How would that work?

Lots of cartoons involving pencils doing the rounds today, one of which is attributed to Banksy – wrongly as it turns out. I put a joke on Twitter which does a double reference:

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to attribute it to someone more famous’ – Banksy

* * *

Friday 9th January 2015. I visit the new Blackwells bookshop at No. 50 High Holborn. It’s meant to replace the one in Charing Cross Road that closed down due to the Crossrail development. Though in the new place the builders are still doing noisy things up ladders, and the lower floor is not yet open. Otherwise, it’s airy and pleasant and a nice place to browse. I wish it well, and buy a set text to show my support (Roth’s Plot Against America).

Evening: I bump into Anne Pigalle in St Pancras – London’s Most French Woman. She’s off to the French Institute for an event about the Paris attacks. She also tells me how important Charlie Hebdo is to France; I have to admit I wasn’t much aware of it before this week.

To the Black Cap in Camden for a farewell-to-London party for Martin Wallace. MW is moving to Oxford to do a PHD, having done so well at Birkbeck. Erol Alkan is there, which is fitting because I first met MW at one of Erol’s club nights. This would be around 1995. Erol is sweet as ever. He recommends a synthy band he’s just released on his label – Ghost Culture. Also chat to Pete Gofton, once of Kenickie, now in academia and music. Once again I have to explain why I’m not making music myself – no urge to is the honest answer.

At home: read a piece by Will Self on the attacks which misattributes the ‘afflict the comfortable’ quote about satire to HL Mencken. It’s actually by Finley Peter Dunne. I suppose this all proves that free speech is, as Mr Self argues, not an uncomplicated practice. Not only must there be a level of responsibility, but some messages are always going to be louder than others. And some names are louder than others too, like Banksy and Voltaire and Mencken and indeed Will Self.

A good rule re quotations: if it’s attached to a well-known name but comes without a proper citation from their work, they probably didn’t say it.

Later: I watch a fascinating TV interview with Frances de la Tour. Such a varied career. She’s convinced, however, that when she dies, the obituary headlines will still refer to her as Miss Jones in the 1970s sitcom Rising Damp, thus ignoring her many other accomplishments in film, TV and theatre. I wonder (grimly) if this will indeed be this case, or if many outlets are more likely to do what they did when Richard Griffiths died, ie focus on her small role in the Harry Potter films. Potter conquers all.


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The Schriftstellerin’s Stick

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

***

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

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


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Mindful Silliness

Friday 7th February 2014.

I am approached by a charity street fundraiser on Tottenham Court Road. ‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘Are you sure?’ he says, following me along the pavement.  I’m tempted to reply, ‘My dad’s just died, you pestering git, leave me alone’. But that would be, as they say in warfare, a disproportionate response.

Saturday 8th February 2014.

To Suffolk to visit Mum. As I get on the train to Marks Tey I recognise that the only other person in the carriage is the comedian Stewart Lee. I enjoy his work enough to know where he’s probably going – and am slightly unnerved that I know this. Earlier this week I’d read an East Anglian Daily Times interview with him online, promoting his show in Ipswich (a reminder that local news is no longer local, thanks to the Web). He told the journalist that the fact he was speaking to the newspaper at all must mean he hadn’t sold enough tickets. Typically for Mr Lee, this was both a grumpy joke and a joke about the act of daring to make that sort of grumpy joke.

Recognising someone in a train carriage requires rather different etiquette to recognising them in the street. The latter predicament always makes me think of a line from a Half Man Half Biscuit song:

‘He’s seen me / And we both realise / That we’re going to have to put into operation / That tricky manoeuvre / that is Acknowledgement Without Breaking Stride’.

It’s more complex if the person you recognise is slightly famous, and though you have chatted to them socially in the past, that had been some years ago. And in Stewart Lee’s case, that Act of Recognising Stewart Lee in Public – and his resulting irritation – is something he has put into his work. There’s one stand-up show where he reads out a long list of unkind statements from Twitter:

‘I saw that Stewart Lee on the bus,’ goes one. ‘He looked fat and depressed and fat.’

I’m too socially awkward as it is to be the one that makes the move in such scenarios, whoever the other person is, and tend to prefer people coming up to me rather than the other way round.  As it is, I think to myself, he might be well in a state of mental preparation for his show, and so shouldn’t be disturbed.

Something else I always worry about is – what if something terrible has happened to the person you’ve just recognised, and now is really not the time to bother them? A parent might just have died, for instance. That happens to people. That definitely happens to people.

So I don’t approach him during the journey. When I get off at Marks Tey, though, he sees me, recognises me and says hello.

I have to add that he looked thin and reasonably happy and thin.

***

Travelling on the little diesel train to Sudbury along the Stour Valley, I pass a line of pylons. They are standing in several feet of flood water. 

***

I spend the afternoon in Bildeston with Mum and my aunt Anne. There’s no traces of the medical equipment that cluttered up the living room last time I was here. The hospital bed, the noisy oxygen machine, the mask, the tubes and the commode have all been taken away by various medical services. No sentimental value attached to those. I’m grateful that they kept him alive, but grateful to see the back of them. Off to sustain someone else.

It turns out that Anne wasn’t intending to be in the village on the day that Dad died. The floods in the South-West had wrecked the train track for her journey back to St Ives, and staying with Mum a few more days was the only option. So Mum had the benefit of her company when she heard from the care home. In fact, it was Anne who took the call. A silver lining of some literal clouds.

* * *

Mum and Anne are convinced Dad’s handwriting closely resembled mine, and vice versa. But I like to think I can see evidence of both parents’ styles coming together in my own spidery hand. It’s as good a reason as any for varying my typing with my longhand writing. Every time I write with a pen, there he is.

***

Sunday 9th February 2014

Dad’s phrases keep coming back to me. One is ‘I have better things to do’, in response to some conversation about a national talking point. As in ‘Did you see that Benefits Street everyone’s on about?’ ‘No, I have better things to do.’ Not meaning it unkindly, but honestly. And he was usually right. It seems a mundane, even obvious piece of life advice, yet it’s one that’s so useful and so easy to ignore. Dad was a fan of silliness, but it was always intentional and purposeful silliness. Mindful Silliness, I suppose. That’s the difference.

As a habitual procrastinator I try to ask myself, ‘Is this the best thing I could be doing right now?’  Or if I’m idling full stop, I wonder ‘What’s the best thing I could be doing now?’  That the phrase comes to me in Dad’s voice helps all the more.

Wednesday 12th February 2014

I’m currently being driven crazy by some sort of facial aching, with hot-and-cold sensations around my teeth, jaw and facial muscle area. Today I see the GP, who thinks it is a flaring up of TJD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder), which I’ve always had a touch of (my jaw clicks). This might well have been brought on the stress of the more intensive college work in January, coupled with general anxiety over my penury, and now of course, Dad’s death.

‘Do you grind your teeth in your sleep?’ she asks. I have no idea. I live alone.

Valentine’s day is close, and like many I start to think about the pros and cons of relationships. The ability of couples to detect warning signs in each other’s health is one definite advantage. Still, I have to admit I enjoy my own company, and am relieved not to have to join the ranks of all the confused-looking men in card shops this week.

 ***

Thursday 13th February 2014.

Mum has written an introduction to be read out at the funeral by the Humanist official in charge (not sure what the correct term is – certainly not priest). It explains how he was known as Bib Edwards to some, and Brian Edwards to others. He tended to prefer the more informal nickname of Bib, but answered happily to either. 

My brother Tom has been balancing his helping with the funeral, with his work as a guitarist. Today he performs in Adam Ant’s band on ITV’s This Morning.

Tom must have mentioned Dad’s passing to Mr Ant, because the singer introduces ‘Ant Music’ on national television with the phrase ‘This is for Bib’.

http://youtu.be/zA_yyBDlA0g


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Sebastian, Melting

Had my weekly session today with the college mentor. It’s a kind of student-friendly therapy, checking I’m coping okay with deadlines, adapting to the campus world and so on.

Bumped into Clayton L & Clair W in the ’34b’ cafe on the corner of Old Compton St and Frith St. Like Bar Italia nearby, it’s one of those tiny old fashioned cafes in Soho that somehow always has a free seat, or rather a free stool.

Other cafe haunts today, while reading my set texts for college: the basement cafe in Waterstones Piccadilly (usually after I’ve been to the London Library), the crypt in St Martin’s (a perfect place in central London for meeting one’s parents), and Bar Bruno in Wardour Street, where Sebastian Horsley used to eat; very much a part of Old Soho.

Tonight: saw the new Stewart Lee show, ‘Carpet Remnant World’ at the Leicester Square Theatre. Lots of the usual deconstruction of his own comedy and attacking sections of the audience for not being quick or clever enough. What’s new is that he ends with a poignant piece of surreal storytelling, the kind he’s not done since the ‘Pea Green Boat’ show some years ago. His best show yet, I think.

Clayton L showed me the cover of his new book, Goodbye To Soho. It features a portrait of Sebastian H by Maggie Hambling. Deliberately unfinished, as if he’s melting into the ghost world:

 

 

 

 


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Fragments

Writing this at 1am on the morning of Monday January 9th.

I think I promised myself I’d get my college coursework out of the way before I wrote another diary entry. I’ve only just finished it – the deadline is the evening of the 9th. The feeling of getting something done on time is such a calming one. What happens at the end is not that one feels exhausted, but has energy left to spare, in the way that a runner keeps going for a few yards after they’ve hit the finish. So here I am with the diary.

Catching up…

Mid December: My first term at Birkbeck College ended with my first two essays back: both 69%. That’s the highest possible mark for an Upper Second, and still a pass. But it’s not a First. And I now know that I really want a First. Even if it’s the lowest possible First, ie 70%. Just one point away. Still, I have the first year to learn how to get better at this – that’s the whole point. None of the first year marks count towards the final degree, for this reason.

(69. Such a pleasant number in the bedroom, so frustrating in the classroom.)

I need to focus on the positive feedback I received, and I include it here by way of self-encouragement rather than vanity. Honest.

“You write extremely well…”

“Really well-written, compelling piece of work… Fluent and confident… perceptive… relevant and illuminating… A very impressive achievement.”

“You have valuably extended the stock of collective wisdom and knowledge.”

That last one was from a workshop I attended, in which I chipped in quite a lot about grammar and style. Shame that didn’t count towards my degree.

***

On Xmas Eve I saw Carol Morley’s Dreams Of  A Life (superb) at the Islington Screen On The Green. They now have a bar inside the main screen room, at the back behind the stalls. I think it may even have served bowls of olives and ciabatta bread. The seats were comfortable (not tipping up) and detached, with plenty of leg room. Rather like a first class aeroplane section.

I spent Christmas Day in Highgate, phoning my parents in the morning then feeding the ducks at lunchtime in Waterlow Park, as I’ve done for some years now. I was joined for this by Ms Silke once again: mulled wine in a flask by the pond. Dinner was courtesy of my kind friend Ella Lucas, at her place in Highgate, with her friend Natascha.

Accidentally, my two Xmas Day 2011 companions (Silke and Ella) both got me the same Christmas card – an Aubrey Beardsley illustration from Le Morte d’Arthur, as printed by the V&A. I’m very happy that I’m definitely the sort of person to give Aubrey Beardsley cards to. Because I am.

I spent AbyssMas – the period between Christmas and New Year – meeting with my parents who’d come up to stay for a few days, and also catching up with friends like Laurence Hughes.

December 30th saw me DJ at the Last Tuesday Society’s New Year’s Eve Eve Ball – a particularly decadent affair even by their standards. Venue was Mass in Brixton, a huge labyrinthine old church. There were fireworks and countdowns to Midnight to welcome in… Dec 31st.

Spent the real New Year’s Eve recovering from a particularly bad hangover after the LTS ball. Steeled myself to welcome in 2012 at the Boogaloo with Ms Kirsten and her friends, but went straight home after about an hour there.

Since then I’ve been working on the college assignments – poetry by Hughes and Coleridge. Have been lurking in the London Library a lot.

***

Enjoyed the start of the second series of Sherlock as well as the second Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes film (seen with Dad). Bought and devoured the Fist Of Fun DVDs – Stewart Lee’s commentary being as entertaining as his footnotes for his solo book. Also enjoyed Stewart Lee’s new ‘EP’ book, for that reason.

And I’ve been spending too much time on Twitter. I’m just not the sort of person that should be on it very much, I think. Found myself getting in an argument with the fake Wendi Deng account, the one that some journalists thought was the real wife of Rupert Murdoch. I mused to the Fake Ms Deng – not thinking they’d reply – about the hoaxer’s need for validation, about the morality of appropriating someone else’s image and identity, asking them what they thought about the Gay Girl From Damascus case, and why people pretend to be other people on the internet, all that. They – whoever they were really – told me it was ‘just a bit of fun’ and I was analysing things too much. Probably right.

I stood on Highgate Hill today and thought about the London 2012 skyline: the Emirates stadium, the Shard, and now the Olympic Park sculpture by Kapoor, like a huge red figure ‘8’ on the horizon.

My college piece was about Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’. I read it on one level as a study of the (usually male) desire to build showy edifices for no good reason. I mentioned how it’s quoted in the opening of Citizen Kane, and referred to the Millenium Dome and the Shard: possibly the ultimate illustration of Coleridge’s ‘visionary fragment’, ho ho.


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