The Freak Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barman: You looking forward to the match?

Me: Not really. Football is… awful.

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

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

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

Football’s coming home?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Little Threads of Infinity

Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.

I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.

But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.


Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.

Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.


Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’


Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.

Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.

Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.


 Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.

Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.

For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.

Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.

It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.

In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.

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Diamonds and Beaus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Xmas Week Diary and Christmas Message 2013

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

Monday 23rd December 2013.

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

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

* * *

Tuesday 24th December 2013.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Thursday 26th December 2013.

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

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

Friday 27th December 2013.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Evening, Two Library Parties

Today: Last lecture at college. We’re looking at a literary essay on the St Etienne film Finisterre, as part of the module on London in literature. Rather unexpectedly, the lecturer shows clips of Notting Hill and Love Actually alongside Finisterre itself. Her argument is that although Richard Curtis’s films present a rather sugary ‘tourist gaze’ version of London, Finisterre is doing the same thing, despite its more arthouse, cliché-free aesthetic. It’s still saying ‘come to London – it’s really great, even the bits which aren’t so great.’ Interesting theory, but I’d say Finisterre also plays with enough notions of detachment and uncertainty to keep that aspect in check. So sad that the New Piccadilly Café, which features in Finisterre, is now gone, but pleased it’s immortalised on film.

Then to two Christmas parties in a row: both in Victorian libraries with connections to Virginia Woolf. First, the end of term party for Birkbeck’s English and Humanities department, held in the Keynes Library in Gordon Square, once home to Maynard Keynes and Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and now part of the Birkbeck campus. No less than three Bell paintings on the walls.

Then a quick tube journey to catch the London Library’s party in St James’s Square. As they only invited selected supporters, I feel extremely privileged to be asked along. I chat to the head librarian, Inez Lynn, and the press  officer, Aimee Heuzenroeder, before getting mince pie crumbs on the carpet. Drinking wine amongst history & books, twice in one evening, all over by 9pm. I would say this is fast become my idea of a good night out, but the night before I was amongst the last ones to be thrown out of the Boogaloo at closing time, so things haven’t changed all that much.

Stephen Fry has just written an excellent blog entry about the London Library here, which mirrors much of my own feelings about the place.


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Jog Off

Stacy in Pittsburgh sends me a link in the manner of ‘I saw this and thought of you’:

Exercises For Gentlemen: 50 Exercises To Do With Your Suit On

Originally published 1908, now reprinted. Reviewed by the New Yorker here.

“Not that this is a hint.  You appear to be in good shape.”

I’m pushing it, I have to admit. My days of eating precisely whatever I like are long gone. I did dally with jogging a few years ago, but abandoned it for aesthetic reasons: I looked ridiculous. I made one enquiry at the local gym, was taken aside and presented with (a) the information that I have to sign up with a personal trainer, and (b) the cost, and, well, legged it.

I also realised you can get more or less get the exercise you need if you walk briskly for an hour or so every day, ideally via the steep incline of Highgate Hill. On top of which, I always try to take the stairs instead of using lifts. And London is so good for walking. Soho in particular favours the walker: all those little streets and no buses.

I treat the London Library as my all-in-one gym, with its labyrinthine corridors and stairs. You pay a subscription and get access to miles of rare and lesser-known books, all to browse and to borrow, all on open access shelves. Serendipity is a work-out, too. In addition to all that exercise for the mind and legs, there’s the chance of spotting Robert Pattinson. Or Natascha McElhone. Or Alan Bennett. Or, let’s face it, the chance for them to spot me.


The Cat Sends Me Back

Am back in the Highgate bedsit after three weeks flat-sitting in Crouch End. No more cat to look after me.
Somewhat taken aback by the contrast in heating. In the flat, there was a boiler and radiators and the knowledge that I didn’t have to pay the heating bill. Back here I have just my little electric fan heater for the room. Which used to be fine, except that Highgate, like most of the UK, is currently in the grip of a proper winter spell. I sit here at my desk still wearing my winter coat, with the fan heater on full right by my toes, and still I shiver. During the night I don two old t-shirts plus my old jogging bottoms (noting that it’s about time I bought some pyjamas), position the heater right by the bed, and still I’m freezing.
Tonight, then: blankets. And I’ve just bought some M&S pyjamas – first time since my teens. I chose the ones that looked the most like hand-me-downs from a Matthew Bourne ballet. I can’t be bothered working out if pyjamas on grown men are stylish or not. They are on me, and that’s an end to it.
During the day I spend as much time in heated public buildings as possible. Library, cafes, shops. Quite the opposite of being ‘snowed in’: the snow helps to get me out of bed (7am)and out of the house. Highgate like Crouch End still looks like Narnia, the snow crunching pleasingly underfoot, but central London is utterly, hilariously devoid of the stuff. A sense of the capital saying to the snow ‘Don’t you know who I AM? Don’t you DARE fall on me. I’m a Very Important City Centre.’
In the London Library toilets, one member walks straight from the cubicles back into the library without washing his hands. This is something that many men do which utterly appalls me. If he’d been a recognizable author, like more than a few LL members, I’d instinctively feel like naming him here and urging the world to boycott his books. But then I remember about WH Auden and his peeing in the sink (as brought up in the new Alan Bennett play). Not an excuse, but a reminder to trust the art, never the artist. Particularly the piss artist.
Packing away the Christmas decorations, I notice that 2009’s Christmas seems to have brought me more Christmas cards than I’ve had for years: 30 to 40 of them. In this digital world, it feels even more special. I know I go on about my love of getting proper handwritten letters and cards, but actually getting them is something else. Thank you, all those responsible. One favourite is from the band The Real Tuesday Weld. It contains a little 3-inch CD EP of the band. I’d forgotten how lovely 3-inch CDs were. Favourite track: ‘Plastic Please’, featuring the Puppini Sisters. It’s a fanbase mailout, but singer Stephen has handwritten a greeting to me: ‘To Dickon. Keep Dreaming.’ Which makes all the difference.
I see in 2010 DJ-ing at White Mischief at the Proud Cabaret venue off Fenchurch Street. Fantastic live acts, particularly Frisky and Mannish and The Correspondents, who do a real 1910-meets-2010 techno rap set, merging cravats and waistcoats with skinny emo leggings. My own highlight is helping to locate a burlesque Judy Garland’s detachable plait.

Am back in the Highgate bedsit after three weeks flat-sitting in Crouch End. No more cat to look after me.

Somewhat taken aback by the contrast in heating. In the flat, there was a boiler and radiators and the knowledge that I didn’t have to pay the heating bill. Back here I have just my little electric fan heater for the room. Which used to be fine, except that Highgate, like most of the UK, is currently in the grip of a proper winter spell. I sit here at my desk still wearing my winter coat, with the fan heater on full right by my toes, and still I shiver. During the night I don two old t-shirts plus my old jogging bottoms (noting that it’s about time I bought some pyjamas), position the heater right by the bed, and still I’m freezing.

Tonight, then: blankets. And I’ve just bought some M&S pyjamas – first time since my teens. I chose the ones that looked the most like hand-me-downs from a Matthew Bourne ballet. I can’t be bothered working out if pyjamas on grown men are stylish or not. They are on me, and that’s an end to it.


During the day I spend as much time in heated public buildings as possible. Library, cafes, shops. Quite the opposite of being ‘snowed in’: the snow helps to get me out of bed (7am) and out of the house. Highgate like Crouch End still looks like Narnia, the snow crunching pleasingly underfoot, but central London is utterly, hilariously devoid of the stuff. A sense of the capital saying to the snow ‘Don’t you know who I AM? Don’t you DARE fall on me. I’m a Very Important City Centre.’


In the London Library toilets, one member walks straight from the cubicles back into the library without washing his hands. This is something that many men do which utterly appalls me. If he’d been a recognizable author, like more than a few LL members, I’d instinctively feel like naming him here and urging the world to boycott his books. But then I remember about WH Auden and his peeing in the sink (as brought up in the new Alan Bennett play). Not an excuse, but a reminder to trust the art, never the artist. Particularly the piss artist. Readers of my own work might like to note that I always wash my hands after visiting the lavatory. Whatever you think of it, it has been written by properly cleansed hands.


Packing away the Christmas decorations, I notice that 2009’s Christmas seems to have brought me more Christmas cards than I’ve had for years: 30 to 40 of them. In this digital world, it feels even more special. I know I go on about my love of getting proper handwritten letters and cards, but actually getting them is something else. Thank you, all those responsible. One favourite is from the band The Real Tuesday Weld. It contains a little 3-inch CD EP of the band. I’d forgotten how lovely 3-inch CDs were. Favourite track: ‘Plastic Please’, featuring the Puppini Sisters. It’s a fanbase mailout, but singer Stephen has handwritten a greeting to me: ‘To Dickon. Keep Dreaming.’ Which makes all the difference.


I see in the New Year by DJ-ing at White Mischief at the Proud Cabaret venue off Fenchurch Street. Lots of gorgeous dressed-up people, and fantastic live acts, particularly Frisky & Mannish, plus The Correspondents, who do a real 1910-meets-2010 techno rap set, merging cravats and waistcoats with what looks like skinny emo leggings. My own highlight is helping to locate a burlesque Judy Garland’s detachable plait. That says it all.

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Eliot & Orlando

I am sitting here as the direct result of Brian Blessed singing in a leotard 28 years ago.

The London Library’s new wing, TS Eliot House, opened this morning. As I came in at 9.30am, I was told by the staff that I’m the very first member to use it. The redevelopment is still very much ongoing: so far there’s just this Wifi enabled Temporary Reading Room, which looks out onto quiet little Mason’s Yard. It’s a view dominated by the White Cube gallery, that towering, slightly menacing sugar lump of the London art scene. But just one room in the new wing is enough to get me excited. Walking through the familiar old stacks of the main Library – Fiction, 2nd Floor – then stepping through a previously hidden door into the Eliot annexe, I’m breathless with anticipation. It might as well be a childhood birthday. What kind of a person gets excited over library annexes?

TS Eliot House has been named not just to honour the great poet and former Library President, but also to mark his widow Valerie’s gift of £2.5 million from his royalties. It’s the single largest donation to the Library, which exists without state funding. And of course, the lion’s share of Eliot royalties these days is not from sales of The Waste Land but from the enormously successful Lloyd-Webber musical Cats, based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. It opened in 1981 with Brian Blessed and Elaine Paige in the original cast of warbling felines, all decked out in furry leotards.

There’s also some new toilets in the Eliot block. Very modern and shiny, with a range of pretty multi-coloured floor tiles designed by the Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed. The lightbulb man. As I try the loos out, mindful of who paid for them, I think of that schoolboy anagram of the poet’s name: toilets.

More seriously, though, and as it’s the New Year and a time for resolutions and self-reflection, I muse on that famous line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:  ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ So arresting, so sad, and so sobering. How one’s life gets measured out one way or another whatever you do, and how you’d better make sure it’s measured in something you’re happy with. Or at least, don’t mind too much.

So for 2009, the plan is to try to take charge of the year, rather than just let the year happen. I won’t say yes to doing something out of sheer politeness any more. I spent too much of 2008 agreeing to things, only to find myself pacing Archway Road for weeks afterwards in a blind fury, scolding myself for committing to a project or booking I didn’t actually want to do, whether it was a DJ gig or a music gig, or a writing gig where I wasn’t in the least bit interested in the subject matter (and in the case of reviews, I’ve done more than enough for a CV anyway).


Something I have been asked to do recently is to talk about the Orlando album, Passive Soul. Thanks to Tim Chipping and his Herculean persistence, it’s now been given a digital reissue on iTunes, making it officially available for the first time in ten years. He also ensured the album comes topped up with all the b-sides from the same period. Including demos and a cover of the Kenickie track ‘Acetone’.

A quick Google reveals that the album often has a kind of flattering default opinion hovering about it, with people on message boards using it in arguments to show off their knowledge of Great Lost Albums Of The 90s. Which is fine by me, though obviously I’m biased. Regardless, it did pretty well with the proper critics on its release in 1997. NME gave the album 8/10, while Melody Maker included it in their Top 20 Albums Of The Year.

And at about 4AM on January 1st 2009, while staggering drunkenly outside the Boogaloo, I am stopped by a young couple.

‘Are you Dickon Edwards? We’re big Orlando fans…’

It’s the first time I’ve been recognised as Dickon From Orlando in years.

I’ve also just remembered that ‘Prufrock’ is half-quoted in an Orlando song, ‘Contained’ (‘In this life that is measured out / in bus stops and rain’).

Is it a sign of things coming together? Well, it’s a reminder I should write about the album.

Here’s the link to Passive Soul on iTunes:

Tim wants to know how I feel about the songs now, particularly the lyrics. I’d quite like to know too. Let’s find out. Off we go with the iPod…

Furthest Point Away
Hah – this now makes me think of the Go Team, of all people… A case of throwing everything into the mix at once. Dexys, soul records, Spector bluster. Lyrically – the misanthropic socialist, wanting a revolution as long as it doesn’t mean talking to people – and ‘soul-cialist’, too. ‘A wink begets a sigh / you won’t pre-empt so why should I’ is pure Edwyn Collins verbose camp. Am I playing guitar on this one? Probably struggling if I am.

Just For A Second
Great pop song, forged by the producer of Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’. Definitely playing guitar on this one – weird, out of time chords strummed upside down. Fantastic vocal performance from Tim. ‘Through no real fault of your own / You were born with a withering tone / You’re out on the town / Making people impress you” is actually more Fosca than Orlando. Going out to impress or trying to impress people is one thing, MAKING others impress YOU is a less expected line. So I’m showing off  on the lyrics front with little bits of wordplay and arch reversal, at the risk of losing the listener.

Nature’s Hated
Prefer the more raw demo version (included with the reissue) but only slightly. Excellent contrast to ‘Furthest Point’ in the arrangement, as it lets the song breathe. The self-pitying in the words grates with me now. Very much a younger Dickon’s lyric. I’m no less free from bouts of feeling sorry for myself these days, but back then even my miserableness had a certain naïve charm. I envy his youth – what right has he to moan with skin that good?

On Dry Land
Never cared for this at the time. Probably out of vanity: I just supplied the words while Tim came up with the music entirely separately (no idea how to play it myself), but today it sounds right up my street…The kind of record I’d track down if it wasn’t by a band I was in. Brilliant stuff. A real 70s musical feel to the music. Stephen Schwartz, A Chorus Line, Paul Williams…

Okay, this is pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever helped to make. Please, please, download this if you download any one Orlando track. No false modesty here. A ton of influences (TS Eliot as mentioned, but also Billy Bragg, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, The Beatles’ ‘For No One’, The Style Council, Jimmy Webb). Tim sings his heart out, I actually play the guitar without falling over.

Afraid Again
The album is just showing off now. Excellent songs, beautifully realised. I remember coming up with the main riff on guitar, and Tim transferred it to a synth. Very much the  sound of a band who are free from external fashions. Actually, it sounds a bit like Take That are NOW – dreamy, mature pop without being cloying.

Happily Unhappy
This completes the trilogy of ‘showing off’ songs. I came up with the chords in my Bristol bedsit when learning the guitar for the first time. I think I was trying to learn a Carpenters number, and ended up with this flowing ditty instead. Lyrics are a bit lazy – apart from the bit about thinking too much all the time. That’s actually quite a strange thing to hear in a pop song. Of course, that’s the narrator’s dilemma – his mind is out of sync with his heart, and he can’t even relax his own words into the simple language of a ballad.

Don’t Sleep Alone
A rather raunchy sentiment by my standards… Lyrics are rather like late Abba, in that aloof and disdainful way of commenting on a relationship, or the want of one. Fabulous brass solo. Anyone got Mark Ronson’s phone number? Nods to Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ in the lyrics towards the end.

Save Yourself
Very much Late Orlando. Thoroughly fed up with all things, and angry with it. Uneasy and personal listening for me – I can hear barbed remarks of the day set down here – from letters, from arguments.

Three Letters
The darkest and most selfish lyric I’ve written, brilliantly arranged by Tim into a desolate torch song turn. Gripping, cathartic.

Here, So Find Me
The one with the big orchestra, Tim outdoing McAlmont & Butler. My position in the band at this point was pretty much faxing lyrics to the studio then going back to bed. Lyrics are about walking the most dangerous possible streets on purpose – hoping to be mugged or worse, purely to get some kind of human contact. Proper orchestration rather than just turning the keyboard bits into strings. Closing piano is sublime.

The secret track. A cover of the Shelley track from the Sarah Records EP. A surprise from Tim to me.

And of the B-sides:

Something To Write Home About
A very shy song, very proudly sung by Tim. KG RIP.

Orlando do TLC-style R&B. Pretty damn well, really. No, really! Lyrics are a bit unwieldy. Sorry, Tim.

Up Against It
I absolutely adore this one. So beautifully realised and performed. Lyrics are possibly a bit too overwrought. And that’s coming from me.

Someday Soon
A favourite lyric: ‘I wish I was a girl / Because you’re only nice to girls…’ Imagine the likes of Oasis singing that! I do, nightly. Should be ‘were a girl’ if you’re a stickler for formal grammar. But ‘I wish I was…’ sounds better here.

You’ve Got The Answer Wrong
Oh god – I’ve just remember this is actually a song I wrote for the Queercore punk band The Children’s Hour. Transformed and vastly improved into this well-dressed cocktail jazz setting. Perfect for El Records.

A Life’s Aside
I’m very fond of this one. It’s rather beautifully strange and otherworldly and woozy.

All in all, Orlando were a pretty varied band. And indeed, invariably pretty. We were restless, fearless, luckless and, sadly for us, commercially hopeless. But never pointless.

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