Some Passing Maniac

Wednesday 14 August 2019. I renew my passport. This is not because of any panic over Brexit, but because the ten year expiry date happens to be this month. I opt for the no-fuss renewal service offered by the Post Office. Contrary to the stereotype about the British, no true Londoner likes to queue.  Queuing in London is for tourists. Real Londoners know there’s usually a less busy version of whatever one wants, whether it’s a chain of cafes, a Post Office, a bank or an ATM. One quiet Post Office is in Grays Inn Road near Chancery Lane station. It’s hidden in the basement of a branch of Ryman’s, like a secret members’ club. There’s no one else there at all when I go today, even during lunchtime. Today I present my old passport, they take my photograph with a machine at one end of the counter, and it’s all done in five minutes.

Within the week, a new passport arrives in the post. It looks the same as the old one, with the same burgundy red colour. It takes me a moment before I realise there is one difference, though. The words ‘European Union’ are missing.

Evening: Drinks and Thai food at the Hemingford Arms with Shanti S., which warrants a selfie:

**

Friday 16 August 2019. To Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, to DJ for the wedding reception of Maud Young. I play many of my old Beautiful & Damned tracks. It’s a fun return to a previous life, but as with making music I don’t have any further interest in dj-ing. Passions can wax and wane across a life. Some people are happy doing one thing all their life, and I envy them. Others are drawn to paths not yet travelled, even if it means leaving old worlds behind.

**

Saturday 17 August 2019. Some old worlds are never quite left behind, though. In Russell Square today I receive a catcall from an older man on a bike: ‘Stop dying your hair, you poof.’

I wonder if that happens to Nick Cave?

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Sunday 18 August 2019. To the Rio for Marianne and Leonard, Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Leonard Cohen and his muse. Mr Broomfield declares an interest early on: like Cohen, he too once dated Marianne. There’s a sense of bragging here, and indeed Mr B can’t resist showing photos that show just how attractive he was in the 1960s, like Liam Gallagher with a thesaurus.

As with all Nick Broomfield documentaries, the choice of interviewees is wonderfully suspect. We get the testimonies of sacked collaborators, spurned relatives, or just some passing maniac. Still, Mr B always makes his subjectivity clear. The ‘official’ documentaries try to pretend otherwise.

**

I visit a new bookshop and café in Dalston, ‘Ripley & Lambert’. It specialises in books about film. This might seem rather niche, but then ‘niche’ is now thought to be the way forward. Magazines on prog rock are thriving, while general music ones like NME have bitten the dust. A display about women in science fiction explains the shop name: Ripley and Lambert are the two female characters in Alien.

**

Monday 26 August 2019. A stiflingly hot bank holiday. I loaf in Dalston all day, only venturing out to see Once Upon A Time in Hollywood at the Rio. Mr Tarantino is acquiring a Dickensian touch with age. There’s an idealised little girl who offers advice on acting for Leonard DiCaprio: ‘It’s the pursuit that’s meaningful’. Sadly, there’s not enough of this sort of thing, and the end of the film is the usual Tarantino bloodbath. Except that times have changed, and this sort of trashy violence – particularly against women – is now more of a problem. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is what his fans just expect. Comfort in the familiar, however problematic. All of which makes Quentin Tarantino the Boris Johnson of cinema.

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Wednesday 28 August 2019. Pain and Glory at the Rio, the new Almodovar. In a way, this film is just as indulgent as the Tarantino, with much idolising of the culture of old films. But Almodovar at least nods towards the universal. There’s a beautiful scene early on of women washing blankets in a country river while singing, straight out of a painting by Sorolla.

**

Thursday 29 August 2019. Seahorse at the Rio, being a documentary on a British trans man as he goes about becoming pregnant. The birth itself is in a birthing pool, making a neat extra nod to the seahorse analogy. Though the film is subtitled The Dad Who Gave Birth, the experience is not previously unrecorded. Last year saw a documentary on a different trans male pregnancy, A Deal with The Universe. And in Seahorse Mr McConnell mentions being in a Facebook group for ‘seahorse dads’, plural. The logical next film would be a portrait of such a group.

The collective noun for seahorses is a ‘herd’, which seems too commonplace for such an unconventional and ornate creature.  A better choice now, given the analogy for pregnant trans men, would surely be a ‘pride’.

**

Sunday 1 September 2019. To the Posy Simmonds exhibition at the House of Illustration. I like her cover design for the 1966 gay-themed novel The Grass Beneath The Wire by John Pollack, with two men in dinner jackets, one with his arm around the other. Her 1981 book True Love is labelled as ‘the UK’s first modern graphic novel’.

The gallery also shows Marie Neurath’s illustrations for 1950s children’s science books. One caption has a response from an 8-year-old reader: ‘They are wizard books! I can read them by myself. I don’t need help from anyone.’

A third exhibition is Quentin Blake’s latest work, direct from his studio. There’s a John Ruskin children’s story, a wordless book of his own called Mouse on a Tricycle, a collaboration with Will Self titled Moonlight Travellers, and drawings for the corridors of Sheffield Children’s Hospital. And this is just Mr Blake’s work for the first half of 2019.

**

Tuesday 3 September 2019. My 48th birthday. I go to Rye and Camber Sands, mainly on an EF Benson tip. There is a beach café that does prosecco at eleven o’clock in the morning.

Dinner at the Mermaid Inn, then a look at Radclyffe Hall’s house.Back to Dalston in time for the launch of La JohnJoseph’s book A Generous Lover,at Burley Fisher. At 48, I am all about books and book-related places.

**

4 September 2019. I read an Observer review by Peter Conrad, which discusses Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag.  It seems the woman who gave the world ‘Notes on “Camp”’ wasn’t immune to moments of camp herself: ‘When, on one rare occasion, a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm, she complained that the sensation made her feel “just like everybody else”’.   

The phrase ‘a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm’ also says something about Mr Conrad. All reviews review the reviewer.

Mr Moser’s book claims that Sontag’s partner in later life, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, treated her to limousines, first class air travel, and an apartment in Paris. As Sontag never earned very much from her books, compared to Leibovitz, her partner served as her ‘personal welfare state’. Some welfare. Mr Conrad supplies these details to suggest Sontag was a terrible role model. But I see nothing wrong with being a kept intellectual.

**

Tuesday 10 September 2019. To Stanford’s in Covent Garden for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest, The Atlas of Vanishing Places. I chat to Daniel Rachel. Last time I met him he was telling me he was writing a book on the 1990s Cool Britannia era, Don’t Look Back in Anger. The book is now out and has had good press. Mr R tells me tonight that he wanted the subtitle to contain the phrase An Oral History, but the publishers had vetoed this wording, worried that the average reader of a book on Britpop might not know what ‘oral history’ meant.  

I wonder if this is down to the image of Britpop as anti-intellectual and laddish (or laddettish). Both Gallagher brothers still seem happy to perpetuate this image, like the cool boys at school who belittled the geeks. When Brett Anderson of Suede received rave reviews for his memoir recently, the reviews had overtones of surprise. The implication was that, as he was a rock star from the 1990s, it was a miracle he could string a sentence together at all.

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Monday 9 September 2019. A useful retort: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have the budget for any more unpaid work’.

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Thursday 12 September 2019. To Kings Place to be in the audience for a recording of the podcast, Girls on Film. The film critic Anna Smith presents three guests – all women – discussing the latest releases. Two are actors, Ingrid Oliver and Tuppence Middleton, the other is the BFI’s Director of Festivals, Tricia Tuttle.

The rise of podcasts against mainstream radio hit a tipping point for me when a young guest on Radio 4’s A Good Read recently called the programme ‘this podcast’ – and was not corrected.

Drinking in the Kings Place glass-plated bar afterwards, looking over the canal and Granary Square. This shiny redevelopment, all plate glass and escalators, seems popular and utopian, if still finding its feet.

 **

Tuesday 17 September 2019. All work is acting work. The trick is not to be miscast.

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Thursday 19 Sept 2019. I meet Shanthi at a cocktail bar in Islington, only to realise that drinks start at £9 – and that’s just for a glass of house wine. There has to be a word for the trick of trying to keep a straight face when such prices are communicated, and indeed for a staffer communicating them with their air of complete normalcy.

**

Friday 20 Sept 2019. From today I’m being paid the Living Wage (17k) to do a PhD. Less money than the office job I had ten years ago (which was 19k, in 2009), but my gratitude for not being forced to do unsuitable work more than makes up for it.

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Monday 23 Sept 2019. I read an article about a young Instagram ‘influencer’, Caroline Calloway, and the world of pursuing internet fame for its own sake. This is new and yet not new. I’m reading about the Bright Young Things of the 1920s: pretty people whose lives and relationships were documented in the press without them appearing to actually do anything. So perhaps social media has just made that kind of lifestyle more democratic. Today, a 1920s figure like Stephen Tennant would have to maintain an Instagram account. Or rather, as seems to be the case with ‘influencers’, he’d have staff to ghost-write his posts for him.

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Wednesday 25 Sept 2019. I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo. The use of Kathy Acker reminds me how Acker has become hip all over again. I think of KA’s line ‘Dear Susan Sontag, please can you make me famous?’, the most honest statement in the history of literature.

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Wednesday 25 September 2019. Tonight, my seahorse brooch is described as ‘very Lady Hale’.

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Saturday 5 October 2019: Checking in on Twitter after a gap one feels besieged by the sheer infinitude of the lives of others. All I can add in response is that I too am alive. Still.

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Tuesday 8 Oct 2019. One of the delights of library books is encountering the traces of previous readers. In a London Library copy of Ronald Firbank’s Five Novels, from 1949, I recently found a ticket for Carmen at the New York Met opera house, dated October 2014. Today I’m reading a book from 1927, Movements in Modern English Poetry and Prose by Sherard Vines, which has an early assessment of Firbank. A slip of paper falls out. It is a handwritten note from the London Library to an anonymous reader, informing them that a couple of books they ordered are unavailable.

This would normally be dull, but the note is dated 20 April 1954. I can’t help scrutinising the handwriting of the librarian – a beautiful looping hand in fountain pen ink, and wondering about the lives of the reader and the staffer, and if this disposable note has now outlived them. I look up the unavailable books it mentions. Time and Place by Lyde and Garnett, a 1930s geography book which was ‘not possessed by the Library’, and A Myth of Shakespeare by Charles Williams – one of the Inklings – which in 1954 was ‘missing from the Library shelves’. I look both up in the Library’s catalogue. The Library never did acquire Time and Place, but the Wilkins is back in stock.

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Tuesday 15 October 2019. The Booker Prize is awarded jointly. One book is Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale,which has had a huge amount of publicity already, including midnight bookshop openings with actors dressed as Handmaids. The other is Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which hasn’t. If you can’t decide between two books in a prize set up to raise the profile of literary fiction, why not give it to the book that hasn’t already had its profile already massively raised? There’s something of the spirit of the times in this decision: a misplaced sense of righteousness, and with a terror of divisiveness.

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Wednesday 16 October 2019. On a Sontag tip again, this time because of an excellent essay by Johanna Hedva on the White Review website. A quote by Sontag connects with my own thoughts:  ‘I wanted every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive’.

**

Saturday 19 October 2019. Finish reading Firbank’s New Rythum (sic), his unfinished novel set in New York. There’s a couple of superb set pieces, such as the strawberry-picking tea party held in a ballroom, and the arrival at the city harbour of a huge nude male statue. I wonder if the latter inspired the end of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Orton being a Firbank admirer. There was talk lately of a new statue to Orton in his home town of Leicester. He’d have like that to be nude, too, but with his socks on.

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Sunday 20 October 2019. I listen to two long interviews with Chris Morris, on the Adam Buxton podcast. The latest Morris project is a feature film, The Day Shall Come, which I’ve just seen at the Rio. The film is in a similar vein to Four Lions: a conventional comedy drama, scripted and directed by Morris, and based on his research into real life incidents. Morris himself doesn’t perform in the film, and I come away missing his greatest asset, the one which made On The Hour so distinctive: his voice.

 **

Wednesday 28 October 2019. To the Tim Walker exhibition at the V&A, which ticks so many of my boxes: Tilda Swinton as Edith Sitwell (who turns out to be a relative of hers), Aubrey Beardsley, Angela Carter, Lord of the Flies, fashion, glamour, camp. In the exhibition shop, there’s a display of Mr Walker’s favourite books. These include The Swimming-Pool Library and Tintin in Tibet. And inevitably, Orlando.

**

Tuesday 29 October 2019. To Homerston Hospital for surgery. This is a septoplasty (with ‘reduction of turbinates’) to correct a deviated septum. The procedure is to address the nasal breathing problems I’ve been having for some years. I go under general anaesthetic. All is well, though I have to spend the next 14 days at home to minimise the risk of infection. My landlady K is my designated escort, in that she collects me from the hospital and checks up on me during the first 24 hours. It’s a level of concern for a tenant that is difficult to imagine from many landlords.

**

Thursday 31 October 2019. Halloween. It’s only today that I notice the first name of Kenneth Williams’s vampiric character in Carry On Screaming is Orlando.

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Saturday 9 November 2019. Irritations over redundant adjectives. A book review in the Sunday Times refers to ‘a little novella’.

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Sunday 10 November 2019. Less Boris Johnson, more BS Johnson.

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Sunday 17 November 2019. I read about the rise of gender reveal parties, and wonder if fans of Judith Butler hold gender congeal parties.

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Sunday 24 November 2019. Today’s disproportionate irritation: Eve Sedgwick making the common error of thinking the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ is called ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ (Epistemology of the Closet, p. 144).

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Sunday 1December 2019. I’ve turned my PhD thesis into an online Advent calendar. Every day in December I post an image on Instagram and Twitter, relating to camp modernism. Some of these ‘windows’ are writers like Gertrude Stein. Others are illustrations like Alan Cumming in Cabaret, to represent Christopher Isherwood. The resulting Camp Modernism Advent Calendar bears the hashtag #CaMoAdCal.

Link: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/camoadcal/

**

Thursday 12 December 2019. I cast my vote in the constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington. The polling station is Colvestone Primary School, near Ridley Road market. I’ve voted here twice before for council elections, with barely anyone about. This time there’s a long queue that snakes out into the playground, some forty people strong, even at 7.30am. I put my X next to Diane Abbott, for Labour. It’s not without some guilt as I’d rather vote Green, but removing the Conservatives has never been more important. The local result is that Ms Abbott is re-elected, while the Greens increase their vote, no thanks to me.

As I walk away I am so convinced of the unsuitability of Mr Johnson and the nobility of Mr Corbyn that I feel even long-standing Tory voters will not bring themselves to vote Tory now. Only masochists.

**

Friday 13 December 2019. Masochism triumphs.

The subsequent days see constant post-mortems. I have to admit that I was ignorant of Mr Corbyn’s complete lack of appeal to voters outside of cities. My mother, who lives in the English countryside, is utterly unsurprised by the result. Whereas I am not immune to social media bubbles, little illusory worlds in which everyone appears to share the same opinion as you.

It seems incredible that between these two men Mr J appealed to more people than Mr C. Between Johnson’s Wodehousian blather and Corbyn’s inflexible sternness, it was the former that offered more space to more people. I thought that the public might at least give Corbyn a tentative go at the steering wheel, what with a decade of the Tories and several disastrous months of Johnson. But no: better the devil you know.

The overnight TV election coverage does not help. All the presenters and pundits seem unlikely to know what it’s like to, say, live in a rented room over the last five years. Channel 4’s programme is billed as an ‘alternative’ election night, but the pundits are equally comfortable and well-off, including Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris. In the 1980s Channel 4 was synonymous with proper ideas of the alternative: seasons of foreign films, a simulcast of Derek Jarman’s Blue with Radio 3, the Dennis Potter ‘Seeing the Blossom’ interview. Today, ‘alternative’ just means a different member of the Johnson family.

**

Tuesday 24 December 2019. I’m so easily tired that even the idea of fun exhausts me. Whenever I see an event is sold out, I feel the warm glow of a lucky escape.

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Wednesday 25 December 2019. Christmas at Bildeston in Suffolk, visiting Mum, including a visit to Dad’s memorial in the village graveyard. Mum finds an old photo of myself where I’m slouching on the sofa in the living room, the cards on the wall dating the image to a Christmas past. I think it’s from 1989, so I would be 18. My hair is my natural brown, but I can tell it’s from my phase of slightly lightening  it with Sun-In spray – my gateway drug to full peroxide. I’m also wearing a black polo-neck jumper, a look I took to during my stage management trainee phase, first as an intern at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich (1989-1990), and then formally at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1990-1992). I now think I just wanted a job that allowed me to wear black polo-neck jumpers. By 1992 I had lost interest in the jumpers, and indeed in stage management. But working on productions of Company and Side By Side By Sondheim made me realise that I did want to be a writer of thoughtful and quotable phrases, beginning with lyrics for songs. I still use ‘Move On’ from Sunday In The Park With George as inspiration. There is also the pleasing irony of not moving on from listening to ‘Move On’.

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Thursday 26 December 2019. I make the mistake of looking at Twitter over Christmas. Such relentless anger. It’s one thing to disagree about something, quite another to devote large amounts of passion arguing with people who have no intention of changing their mind, at least not on Twitter. Less energy on what one dislikes or finds offensive, more on what one likes and finds beautiful.

**

Tuesday 31 December 2019. The cover of the late Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983)has as good a New Year’s resolution as any: ‘Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’.

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How To Be Punk And Camp

Friday 28 September 2018. Further to my wistful renaming of the DLR line as the Delightful Little Railway, my friend Miriam gets in touch with her own interpretation. She thinks of it as the Dave Lee Roth.

Mum is in London. We have lunch in the Stratford Palace of Glittering Delights, otherwise known as the Westfield shopping centre. The place is pure postmodern excess: too many floors of too many shops. Though at least it’s above ground, unlike the underground mall at Canary Wharf, which is clearly modelled on the Hell of Beckford’s Vathek.

Whoever hires waiters at Wagamama’s has a thing for muscular young men. It seems unlikely that a Love Island six pack is the basic requirement for serving pad thai, but it certainly helps with one’s digestion.

In the nineteenth century, the department stores in London were spaces that women could feel safe inside, walking about by themselves. (Source: Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping For Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (2000)). Malls these days are also safe spaces environmentally: safe from traffic and pollution. But the main attraction is the comfort of global brands. Here they are arranged in such proliferation, the experience mimics online shopping. The paradox of a non-place like Westfield is that it makes shoppers feel entirely at home.

**

Tuesday 2 October 2018. Learned today: Woolf’s Orlando was labelled as ‘camp’ in the mid-1960s, thanks to the articles responding to Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’. Here’s Thomas Meehan in the New York Times Magazine, 21 March 1965 (p. 30):

‘The favourite parlor game of New York’s intellectual set this winter has been to label those things that are Camp and those that are not Camp. Moreover, finding nuances within nuances, they have now divided Camp into high Camp (e.g., Virginia Woolf’s Orlando), middle Camp (Winnie the Pooh), low Camp (Batman comic books), intentional Camp (Barbra Streisand), unintentional Camp (Lana Turner in Love Has Many Faces), active Camp (dancing at the Dom), passive Camp (sitting through seven straight days of the Bette Davis film festival at the New Yorker Theater) and summer Camp (Cherry Grove).’

I look up ‘The Dom’ and ‘Cherry Grove’ – both are very New York references. The Dom was a trendy hangout for the Beats in St Mark’s Place, while Cherry Grove was, and still is, a summer beach resort on the nearby Fire Island, popular with gay men.

**

Monday 8 October 2018. I watch some of the new Doctor Who, with Jodie Whittaker. I’m intrigued that they’ve made one of the companions, Ryan, dyspraxic. Another character accuses him of blaming things on his dyspraxia, including an alien invasion. Both actions are understandable. The irritation of being diagnosed as dyspraxic should at least allow one to blame things on it. But of course this only makes others suspicious.

Evening: to the Rio with Ms Shanthi, to see A Star Is Born. For all the glamour of Lady Gaga, the film’s focus is really on the troubled masculinity of Bradley Cooper’s character, whose music here is a strange form of 90s grunge rock. One theme is the way gender works in showbusiness: Mr Cooper first sees Lady Gaga’s character when she’s performing as the token ‘real’ woman on a cabaret bill of drag queens. The film equally suggests that the bad behaviour of famous men might be due to the stresses of trying to be a ‘real’ man, whatever that may mean.

**

Tuesday 9 October 2018. History repeats itself. This week the media is full of articles about camp, and it’s New York’s fault once again. The Met Museum’s Costume Institute has announced that ‘Camp’ will be the theme of their 2019 exhibition and gala, and the 1964 Sontag essay will be the inspiration. Says the curator Andrew Bolton, ‘We are going through an extreme camp moment. Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.’ Even The Sun runs a story.

**

To the Rio to see Female Human Animal. This is an experimental thriller based loosely around the work of Leonora Carrington. It’s shot very cheaply, as if on an 1980s camcorder. There’s footage from a number of real life arty events. I’m nearly in the film myself: one scene is at a Last Tuesday Society event, at which I’m certain I DJ’d. Viktor Wynd’s Shop of Horrors is also in there, for which I’ve given guided tours. One of the cast is the artist Philippa Horan, who lived at the Boogaloo in Highgate for a while: I used to go to parties with her. At the screening I chat to the man in the seat next to mine. He turns out to be Brian Dillon, author of Essayism, which I read and enjoyed. He asks me about Momus.

The upshot of all this is that I feel I’m in the presence of a club I’m nearly part of, but not quite.

**

‘Disease is reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself’ – Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (1973).

I don’t have any serious health problems, but I do feel my body is starting to fall apart in various typically aging ways: more aches and pains, more slowness, more tiredness. But I’m also mindful of the reductive aspect of writing about them. The appeal of Derek Jarman’s diaries is the art he made despite being ill. One way of dealing with illness is embrace the outer world more forcefully.

I love the way Audre Lorde puts it:

‘I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my nose holes — everywhere. I’m going to go out like a f-ing meteor!’

**

Thursday 11 October 2018. I present a paper on Grant Richards, Ronald Firbank’s publisher, at the ‘Publishing Queer’ conference in Senate House Library. Richards, a monocled London dandy who put out books from the time of Wilde till the early 20th century, is often painted as ‘unscrupulous’, due to his financial unreliability. He sometimes asked untested authors to pay for the production costs themselves.

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth devotes a couple of paragraphs defending Richards. Like Firbank, she had to pay for some of the costs of her first book The Dark Tide (1923). But she credits Richards with starting her writing career, and for enabling more lasting happiness. When The Dark Tide came out, she received a fan letter from a reader, George Catlin. This turned into a correspondence, and then a courtship, and then marriage and children. One child was Shirley Williams, the Liberal MP. So it can be argued that just as Grant Richards gave us Ronald Firbank’s novels, alongside Joyce’s Dubliners and Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, he also gave us Dame Shirley Williams.

On the same theme of queer publishing, today happens to be Orlando Day. Charleston in Sussex is marking the anniversary of the book’s publication date, 11 October 1928, with a 9-hour reading of the whole novel, in which different readers take it in turns. I’d forgotten how the date is in the story too, marking the end of the narrative. Woolf must have added it when editing the final proofs. Indeed, these days many books appear on Amazon with a release date and even a cover, long before the text itself has been finished.

Something else that I forget about Orlando is that it was Woolf’s biggest selling book at the time. More so than Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Despite all the in-jokery between her and Vita Sackville-West, Orlando really connected with the public. It was something about that fantastical gender-shifting premise, combined with the camp tone she adopted from Lytton Strachey’s jokey biographies (which aren’t nearly as read as Orlando is now). With fantasy, there’s also an element of giving readers a new world to play in. This is especially valuable for those who feel the real world isn’t built for them.

**

Friday 12 October 2018. Today’s finding. In 1934 Winifred ‘South Riding‘ Holtby wrote to Vera Brittain. She mentions having Sean O’Casey’s little son Brian to tea, along with the 5-year-old daughter of her friend John Brophy. I realise that this must be an early appearance in the world of letters by Brigid Brophy. (Source: Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby & Vera Brittain (1960), p. 297).

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‘He had the vaguely distraught air of a kitten that had seen visions’ – Firbank, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli.

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Sunday 14 October 2018. A copy of the new book Bus Fare arrives. This is an anthology of bus-related writings, edited by Travis Elborough and published by the AA. My diary is in there, along with the bus-related passage in Mrs Dalloway, Amy Levy’s poem ‘Ballade of an Omnibus’ (which I love and which I wrote about for my BA), and a fascinating memoir of Matt Monro, the London bus driver turned pop singer. It’s the fourth book to use excerpts from my diary.

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Thursday 18 October 2018. The Metro has a paparazzi photograph of the pop star Harry Styles, one of the hosts of next year’s Met Gala ball. He is caught in the ultimate transgressive embrace: holding a book. It is Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which includes ‘Notes on Camp’. This can be no bad thing. The headline is ‘Harry Styles Rocks Pink Beanie And Gets Deep With Susan Sontag Book As He Leaves Recording Studio’ (Metro 18 Oct 2018). I suppose it’s possible that Harry Styles’s fans might now discover Ronald Firbank, who is named twice in Sontag’s essay. Either that or pink beanies.

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The OED announces that it is adding new adjectives to describe styles of filmmaking: ‘Wellesian’, ‘Capraesque’, ‘Tarantinoesque’. ‘Firbankian’ has been in the OED since 1972. One goal of my research is explain what ‘Firbankian’ may mean, and why it might be useful today. Perhaps Harry Styles now uses it.

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Friday 19 October 2018. To the Gielgud Theatre with Minna Miller, to see the new revival of Company, the Sondheim musical, originally from 1970. The main character, Bobby, has been gender-switched into ‘Bobbie’. In the wake of Doctor Who this might at first smack of some sort of concession to a zeitgeist. In fact it fixes a lot of the problems of doing the original show as it was. The plight of a single thirty-something man is now a lot less interesting, whereas with a woman one only has to point to Bridget Jones and Sex and the City.

There’s also an Alice in Wonderland theme, suggesting that an adult woman navigating the world of relationships has to put up with a lot of Carroll-like absurdities: people talking at her rather than to her.

My favourite detail is the switching of the girlfriend who sings ‘Another Hundred People’ into a male English hipster, complete with beard and skinny jeans. When he ‘city-splains’ New York to her, the irony is much funnier. And yet there’s poignancy too, as sets of figures in subway trains are shown acting out ‘Another Hundred People’ behind him, suddenly dancing or embracing each other, before separating and returning to their detached reality once more. This could be irksome, but thanks to the inventive spirit of the production it’s properly moving.

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Sunday 21 October 2018. I’m reading Audre Lorde. ‘When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from joining – I’m broadening the joining.’ (Sister Outsider, p. 11).

I’m fascinated with the way Lorde’s late 1970s writings use a capital B for ‘Black’, and a small ‘a’ for ‘america’. But I’m also surprised that the term ‘homophobia’ was in use in the late 1970s at all. I’d previously thought it appeared around the early 1990s, seeing it in films like Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) or in the titles of records like Chumbawamba’s Homophobia (1994), or the Senseless Things’ Homophobic Asshole (1992).

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To the Rio to see Fahrenheit 11/9, the new documentary by Michael Moore. Mr Moore’s films no longer have the same ‘event’ feeling of Bowling for Columbine. On that film’s release, around 2002, people in London sat in the aisles of sold-out cinemas rather than miss out. Now, Mr Moore is an establishment figure himself. Unexpectedly, Barack Obama comes under fire, over not doing enough about a water pollution scandal. The overall message is that real hope lies with younger activists rather than the present run of politicians.

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Tuesday 23 October 2018. That eternal writing dilemma: knowing I need to explain some points further, while realising that the whole piece is over the word limit as it is.  One always needs to say more, and always needs to say less.

**

Thursday 25 October 2018. To the Ivor Cutler exhibition at Goldsmiths CCA, reviewing for The Wire. Two 1970s easy chairs with headphones are set up as if to illustrate Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, one of his works. One set of headphones is connected to a vinyl turntable. The visitor is encouraged to put on Cutler’s LPs: Dandruff, Jammy Smears. There is a brand new LP here too: Gruts For Tea Again, a bootleg compilation on blue vinyl.

The exhibition next door involves some sort of noisy mechanical installation, the clunking and whirring of which leaks into the Cutler show. Cutler himself was a member of the Noise Abatement Society, so I wonder what he would have said about this.

**

To the Rio with Ewan Bruce for Bohemian Rhapsody, the dramatic film about the band Queen. We only go because Mandy sold out in the other screen.

Queen were one camp gay man who died and three Top Gear presenters who didn’t, and films are not made by the dead. This fact shapes the whole film.

The story is partly about sexuality, yet there’s no sex in it whatsoever. What it is full of is ludicrous inaccuracies, terrible impressions (apart from the Brian May actor, who is excellent), bad prosthetic teeth, and irksome attempts at pathos. But then, this is the band who gave the world ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. High Art was never going to be high on the list.

The film ends with an extended recreation of the Live Aid gig, even though the real version is available for free on YouTube. But presumably there are lots of people who pay to watch Queen tribute bands, so who I am to deny them? The fairest thing I can say is that this film is not unwatchable.

**

Friday 26 October 2018. Despite the vast choice of recorded music now available, high street shops in London still insist on imposing the same few songs on their customers. One example is ‘Broken Stones’, by Paul Weller, from the mid-1990s. I quite like the song, or at least I used to. Today ‘Broken Stones’ is playing in Boots in Piccadilly Circus, while I look for their least butch deodorant. Then when I queue to buy a coffee in Pret A Manger in Regent Street ‘Broken Stones’ is playing there too. I wonder how this happens, and who is responsible, and whether they were ever really loved as a child.

**

‘None but those whose courage is unquestionable can venture to be effeminate.’ – Ronald Firbank, Valmouth (1919).

**

Tuesday 30 October 2018. Halloween has changed. The ‘een’ part has been deemed unfit for consumer purpose, and one evening is not nearly enough. In London, people are on the streets in costumes night after night, particularly on the weekend before October 31st. Still, the upside of this pumpkin-based Lebensraum is that the retreating forces of Christmas have finally been pushed back into early November. Retailers have admitted that even they cannot put fake cobwebs and fake snow on the same windows at the same time. To everything there really is a season; even to seasons.

**

Thursday 1 November 2018. William Sitwell, the editor of the free food magazine at Waitrose, is under fire for being unkind about vegans. If I could get a message to him, I’d say: ‘Why didn’t your great-uncle Osbert check his facts when writing his 1929 memoir of Ronald Firbank? It’s a mess.’

It is, though. Osbert confuses Vainglory with Inclinations, the fool (They are pretty similar, though).

**

Friday 2 November 2018. In the British Library reading rooms, St Pancras. When I go to the desk to collect my books, I am recognised by one of the staffers. ‘Aren’t you on the cover of a queer studies book?’ He means Elisa Glick’s Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol.

Perhaps I should have denied this to make things more interesting: ‘But it really looks like you…!’ ‘I can’t see it myself’.

**

Saturday 3 November 2018. To the Rio for the London premiere of Something Left Behind, a documentary about the band The Wedding Present. It includes a Q &A with the singer, David Gedge. The film is more specific than I’d realised: it only covers the band’s first album, George Best, from 1987, as framed by footage of recent gigs, in which the current Wedding Present line-up play all the George Best songs in order. This event might sound as if it’s aimed at a very small audience, but the screening is so popular that the Rio opens up its balcony to provide extra tickets. I’ve been going to the cinema regularly for over a year, and this is the first time I’ve seen this happen.

Specialization is the way forward now: the more niche, the better. One can see the evidence in newsagents. The general music magazines like NME have withered away, while magazines on prog rock or metal or just David Bowie are thriving. It is all about recognising that, more than ever before, people want to feel less lonely.

**

Sunday 4 November 2018. An obituary in the Times about Derrick Sherwin, producer of Doctor Who in the late 1960s. ‘He became fed up with television and moved to Thailand where he worked as a bungee-jump proprietor’.

**

Tuesday 6 November 2018. I go on a binge-watch of Killing Eve, managing five episodes before finally going to bed. Senate House Library is a location once again, this time doubling as MI5. The only other TV series I’ve enjoyed as much as Killing Eve this year is Please Like Me. They both dare to mix comedy with serious situations, and they do it with an individual own sense of style.

**

Wednesday 7 November 2018. To the Old Vic with Katie Stone, to see Wise Children. This is Emma Rice’s version of the Angela Carter novel. I enjoy it immensely: the performers rattle through the story at high speed, throwing in song, dance, puppetry, colour and pantomime too – reminding me that Carter herself wrote an essay on the latter, ‘In Pantoland’. One of the themes of Wise Children is legitimacy, which Ms Rice maps onto the idea of South London being less ‘real’ than the rest of London, or indeed that The Old Vic is not as ‘proper’ a theatre as the venues in the West End or on the South Bank.

Perhaps one can compare Ms Rice’s productions to Baz Luhrmann’s films: that sense of using pop culture as a giddy dressing-up box. Like Luhrmann, she throws a parade of ideas at the audience at such a rate, that if one doesn’t please, there’ll be another along in a few seconds. And for all her liberties with the text, she still captures that core Carter tone.

Katie tells me that a copy of Woolf’s Orlando has a cameo in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the new Netflix series. It’s used to hint that the Susie character may be gay, non-binary, or trans (Episode 9 of Series 1, about 20 mins in). What interests me is how this very contemporary topic maps so well onto Woolf’s 90-year-old novel. I suppose it’s the non-binary aspect of Orlando that most appealed to me when I named my band in 1992. I have always felt like a not-man, but without wanting to be a woman either.

**

Sunday 11 November 2018: Whenever Noel Coward needed to go to the toilet, he would say: ‘I must telephone the Vatican’.

**

Tuesday 13 November 2018. I’m reading Brigid Brophy’s Reads, her book of essays from 1989. On the cover is the Fabritius painting The Goldfinch, the subject of one of her essays. More recently, the painting appeared on the cover of Donna Tartt’s hugely popular novel The Goldfinch. I wonder now if Ms Tartt was influenced by Brophy.

**

Wednesday 14 November 2018. One of those days when I go from wishing I was more like a normal person, to being grateful that I’m not. The working title for the novel I’m writing is The Beautiful and Weird.

**

Thursday 15 November 2018. The news has become such an unending spiral of Brexit-ity awfulness that I’m doing my best to avoid it full stop. Ideally, a 3-minute morning bulletin on a music station is all one needs. That way, the reminders of humanity at its worst (news) can be quickly compensated with reminders of humanity at its best (music).

**

Friday 16 November 2018: I think of the title for my chapter on theorising camp modernism: ‘Vile Bodies That Matter’.

**

Sunday 18 November 2018. To the Barbican Cinema 2 for Never Silent, a screening of two Audre Lorde-related films. One is The Edge of Each Other’s Battles, a documentary about a 1990 conference. The other is The Body of a Poet, from 1995, a more experimental film which is inspired by Lorde, but actually features the work of other poets. When the old 1990s Channel Four logo goes up at the end, I’m reminded how this sort of thing used to be synonymous with the channel: strange and quiet little arty films, just put on TV for the general good. Still, this screening is sold out, so perhaps that indicates what has happened. Art films now need to be sought out at cinema screenings like this rather than stumbled upon while flicking through channels on the TV.

There’s more art than ever before, but it’s also more fenced off and carefully ‘curated’. While this means one is more likely to find the sort of thing one already likes, it does mean being less likely to stumble upon works that you never realised might speak to you. Serendipity is becoming harder to find.

**

Saturday 24 November 2018. My landlady Ms K hosts a cheese and wine party in the shared kitchen. I wear the Sebastian Horsley silver velvet suit, if only because it’s good for getting conversations going. I wear a seahorse brooch for the same reason. Always wear something a stranger can remark upon. I usually explain that I’m trying to promote the seahorse as a symbol of unusual maleness (because seahorses – and their close relations, like the rather cruelly-named Weedy Sea Dragon – are the only species where the males give birth). One can then talk about seahorses, or the art of weirdness, or just favourite animals.

Even though most people at the party are at least forty, people hang around late into the night. But I weaken and go up to bed at about midnight. With alcohol, I’m getting more tired more easily. But the upside is that my stomach is stronger. Perhaps it’s my sterner sense of an aesthetic: I can’t pull off vomiting as a look.

**

Monday 26 November 2018. I hand in Chapter Two of my thesis to my supervisors. It’s far too long (20,000 words), and yet not long enough; many of the points need more development. But I had reached the stage where I found everything I’d researched to be interesting, and so was unable to know what to cut. Thankfully, this is what supervisors are for. There’s some irony here, too, as Firbank, my main subject, was obsessed with conciseness. His novels are barely a hundred and fifty pages long, but they’re highly polished and dense with their brevity. ‘Firbank has loaded every rift with ore’, said Edmund Wilson.

But there’s also the spirit of the times here, with everyone typing so, so much, and saying so, so little in the process. Everyone’s writing too much, and everyone’s not writing enough. Perhaps, as Quentin Crisp, said, more of us need ‘chains of our own making’.

**

Tuesday 27 November 2018. I see the film Widows with Jon S. Essentially a crime drama – a remake of the Lynda La Plante series from the 1980s, moved to contemporary Chicago and touching on modern issues of race, class, and gender. For all its artistic ambition (there’s one unexpected scene in which characters in a car are overheard yet not seen), the story is still rooted to the genre. It can’t quite bring itself to be as goofy as Killing Eve. Even the inept people in Widows are still gritty and cool, because the genre demands it. Perhaps I should visit Chicago myself, to prove that someone like me can even be allowed to exist there.

**

Wednesday 28 November 2018. To the Barbican for their current major exhibition, Modern Couples. It is the exhibition equivalent of Love Actually, partly because it crams a large number of different love stories into one space, but also because it’s trying to please as many people as possible. Just like Love Actually, the sheer amount of characters on display means there’s an inevitable loss of detail. Once one finishes reading all the captions, it’s closing time. All one can do is wolf as much down as possible and try not to feel overstuffed.

In fact, I’m reminded how Love Actually is itself the film equivalent of one of those boxes of assorted chocolates one gets at Christmas. The bits with Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy are the popular chocolates that always get eaten first, while the bit with Keira Knightly standing in her doorway while her husband’s friend serenades her with signs, and she doesn’t call the police, is the kind of small baffling jelly best left uneaten.

In Modern Couples everything is interesting: there’s just so much of it. The actual manuscript of Woolf’s Orlando is here, for one. There’s also a wonderful photo of Nancy Cunard leaning over a printing press while dressed in a dandyish dinner jacket and bow-tie.

The Barbican gallery shop sells novelty pairs of socks, illustrated with the faces of famous artists. They have punning names: ‘Sole-adore Dali’, ‘Frida Callus’, ‘Feetasso’, ‘David Sock-Knee’, ‘Vincent Van Toe’. The woman behind me in the queue is buying great fistfuls, or rather footfuls, of these nearly amusing items. Perhaps I need to do my own line. ‘Dickon Footwards’ is the best I can think of. Though that’s surely no worse than ‘Frida Callus’.

I buy a postcard and hand over some money to the young woman on the till. She says: ‘Oh, your hands are really soft!’ Buying a postcard in the Barbican shop is the closest someone like me comes to having a sex life.

**

Monday 3 December 2018. Acquiring two degrees in English literature has made me disproportionately intolerant of errors. I no longer just read: I scrutinise. This week I see an article in a mainstream newspaper, which uses this quotation: ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to – Dorothy Parker’.

I know that this is not the invention of Dorothy Parker at all. She did say it in an interview in 1956, but she pointed out it wasn’t her own:

‘I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.”’ (The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 (Canongate, 2007))

The quip is much older as it is. There is a version recorded by Alexander Pope in 1727, who in turn is quoting his friend ‘D.A.’ – Dr John Arbuthnot:

‘We may see the small value God has for Riches, by the People he gives them to.’ (Thoughts on Various Subjects (1727)).

**

Friday 7 December 2018. Pete Shelley, singer of the Buzzcocks, dies. I always loved the way  Orange Juice’s ‘Rip It Up’ suddenly references the Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’, quoting some of the lyrics (rhyming ‘dum-dum’ with ‘humdrum’), then copying the two-note guitar solo. This wasn’t just a tip of the hat but a declaration of affinity. Edwyn Collins and Pete Shelley both believed that arch humour could have its place in serious rock music.

In Pete Shelley’s case, his archness crosses over into bisexual camp: ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’ was written about a boyfriend. He became much more explicit with his solo synth-pop single, ‘Homosapien’. There’s a 1977 film clip in which he comments on the way punk rock gigs were being cancelled by local authorities. A local education committee spokesman had said that ‘punk rock is vile and obscene’ (Source: a news article in Sounds, 16 July 1977).

In the film Shelley says: ‘These people who are banning us, they’re saying that I’m vile and obscene.’ Then he smiles, widens his eyes, arches his eyebrows, and tilts his head: ‘Do I look vile and obscene?’

It’s the tilting of the head that does it, like a human italic. Firbank once said ‘I adore italics, don’t you?’ (Source: Siegfried Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey 1916-1920 (1945), p. 136).

Susan Sontag’s idea of camp also applies. For her, camp is ‘seeing everything in quotation marks’. In the clip, Pete Shelley uses his whole face as quotation marks, reframing the words ‘vile and obscene’ with a flirtatious Bet Lynch voice. It was this sort of thing that made him so easy to love. Though, as so often with camp, it also made him easy to underrate.

**

I keep thinking about an employer who once turned me down with the words ‘you have the wrong kind of experience’. Today, brooding on my lack of money, I feel punished for wanting to do different things in my life, as opposed to picking one thing at 18 and sticking to it. Though as Anthony Powell says, growing old in itself is ‘like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed’ (Powell, Temporary Kings (1973)).

But to be fair to myself, there is one form of work I have stuck at: this diary. On February 5th, I will be speaking at a British Library event about diaries in general:

https://www.bl.uk/events/diaries-lives-and-times

 

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