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.
, The London Library
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.
Tags: The London Library
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.
, puppini sisters
, snow in London
, The London Library
, the real tuesday weld
, white mischief
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
, Passive Soul on iTunes
, The London Library
, TS Eliot's Toilets