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.
Tags: brigid brophy
, jermyn street
, la roux
, ronald firbank
, The London Library
Xmas Week Diary and Christmas Message 2013
Friday 20th December 2013. I am pleased to receive about two dozen cards this year, made all the more special by the high cost of postage and the dominance of the internet. Post from abroad is especially meaningful: I’m sent a beautiful pop-up one from Eileen C in New York and a pictorial Christmas aerogramme from Danika H in Australia.
Although people rarely send cards and letters today, two Christmas books this year on the subject have proved to be very popular. There’s Shaun Usher’s anthology Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s historical account, To The Letter. The Usher book is based on his website, where the very technology that killed off the letter – the internet – has turned out to be perfect for celebrating it. I feel all the more grateful for receiving an actual letter at Christmas, from Danika, and I’ll make sure I reply in kind.
Another sign of the times this week: the gay section in Time Out magazine has been axed. It’s assumed that, like cinema listings, there’s no longer any need to turn to a paper magazine to find out about events: Facebook events pages and online listings have become the default. Gay issues, meanwhile, are more mainstream than ever, with Conservative politicians supporting campaigns for gay marriage, and campaigns against homophobia around the world (such as in Russia and Uganda) given decent coverage by the media. This week has also seen Alan Turing finally pardoned for the crime of having consensual sex with another man. His mistake was to have it in the 1950s. Actually, as my dad once told me, it was pretty much frowned on to have sex in the 1950s if you were heterosexual, too.
But the question of promoting gay culture separately in terms of identity and role models is an ongoing one. As it is, London still has its annual LGBT film festival (at the BFI) and its own gay bookshop (Gay’s The Word in Marchmont Street – hitting 35 years old next January). Coming out as gay is still a big issue – Tom Daley making the headlines of late. So Time Out’s decision does seem premature. But then, like all paper listings magazines, it’s been struggling full stop.
* * *
Saturday 21st December 2013. To Somerset House with Ella Lucas, to see the exhibition on the late British fashion editor, collector, string-puller, muse and Lady Gaga lookalike, Isabella Blow. Ingeniously, the exhibits that can’t go on mannequins, such as letters and faxes, are in white display cases which sit surreally on mannequin legs – with shoes from Ms Blow’s collection on the cases’ feet. One letter, on Harpers notepaper, is from Hamish Bowles, who is also one of the other dandies in the I Am Dandy book. He writes to Ms Blow, ‘Long for your next appearance – stepping out of a reverie by Ronald Firbank…’
Much of the exhibition is of Philip Treacy’s exotic hat and mask creations, Ms Blow being his biggest champion. One mask has a grid of jewelled Swarovski crystal nails in a black silk net, rather reminding me of the Pinhead monster in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I check the caption, and it turns out to be a direct homage: ‘Hellraiser mask with nail detailing’. Any exhibition which references Ronald Firbank and Hellraiser is fine by me.
A word learned: ‘chopine’. A historical type of women’s platform shoe, popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. Modern versions of which are in the Blow collection. More like a platform clog, really.
One of the information panels on Ms Blow’s history begins with the phrase ‘Forced to work for a living…’
* * *
Sunday 22nd December 2013. I visit the Museum of London, and am pleased to see that its shop stocks A London Year, the diary anthology which includes me alongside Pepys and co. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to being a museum piece.
On the raised pedestrian walkway around the corner, I take a look at the ruins of the original London Wall, where the layers of medieval brickwork can be seen on top of the Roman foundations. There’s an information panel about the ruins, provided by the museum. It’s dated 1980 and has been laminated against the elements, though 33 years later the elements have won, and much of the text is now faded and illegible. The panel about the ruins is itself a ruin.
In the evening I turn a corner in Clerkenwell Green and suddenly see the Shard and St Paul’s from a distance, both lit up. From this angle they appear as if standing right next to each other, though the Thames and several districts separate them geographically. Tonight the former looks like a Christmas tree, and the latter like a bauble. I stare up from the silent street at them, thinking how London always was this constant shrug of old with new, just like the two parts to the Wall and the ruined panel. Inside the Crown Tavern, more shrugging: Wizzard’s eternal Christmas song on the pub stereo, while the first word I overhear as I enter is someone saying ‘Facebook’.
* * *
Monday 23rd December 2013.
The London Library’s last day before closing for Christmas, and the last day of its late night hours, closing at 9pm. It transpires that not enough members use the library quite that late, so in 2014 ‘late closing’ will mean 8pm instead. I sit in the historic Reading Room from 8.30pm till the end, which as expected means I am the only one there. Just me, all the books and journals, the famous soporific armchairs, the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. Utter, serene peace. I soak it in.
As soon as I leave, though: chaos. Heavy wind and rain has hit Britain, causing transport shut downs and power cuts at the worst possible time of year. Although the effect on London is relatively minor, my umbrella is a wreck before I make it out of St James’s Square. At Piccadilly Circus, where I get the tube, the clear plastic bubble over Eros has burst, scattering polystyrene chips of fake snow all over the road. Like some Biblical retribution against worshipping false gods, this idealised image of Christmas weather – pretty fake snow in a bubble – has been eclipsed by real Christmas weather – ugly, uncontained wind and rain.
* * *
Tuesday 24th December 2013.
To the Hackney Picturehouse to see a 1940s Christmas-themed film I’d not seen before, The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays an angel helping a troubled New York priest, played by David Niven. Despite his otherworldly role, Cary Grant is just dressed as Cary Grant, with the usual immaculate dark suit. One character is an eccentric aged scholar, an atheist who nevertheless loves the traditions of Christmas. On discovering Cary G’s celestial identity, he remarks ‘Oh, that’s annoying.’ I think that’s how I’d feel.
Even though the story centres on David Niven’s bishop, the film’s parting message about Jesus feels unusual, even jarring. Yet I remember how it works fine in The Holly and The Ivy, a British film from the early 50s, also about priests at Christmas. I think the fact that Niven’s daughter is played by ‘Zuzu’ from It’s A Wonderful Life reminds me why: American films are happy to tell Christmas stories about angels, but they usually leave out Christ himself.
It’s still an issue today. I read a piece in the Guardian this week where an American writer remarks how the British are perfectly happy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, as opposed to ‘Happy Holidays’, regardless of religion – or lack of it – of those present. It’s just tradition. But among the cards from British people I get, some are indeed saying ‘Happy Holidays’, so perhaps that’s changing.
The first time I saw the word ‘holidays’ used to mean Christmas was in a TV advert. The product was that great ambassador of the American way, Coca-Cola. That may be another reason why ‘Happy Holidays’ has yet to catch on: for some (and I include myself), it feels too American.
* * *
Wednesday 25th December 2013. I spend Christmas by myself in Highgate, once again enjoying the palpable and rare peace in the city. The changed background hum of low traffic without buses. Morning spent hungover from mixing prosecco and Baileys the night before. I chat to Mum at length on the phone.
At 1pm, I meet up with Silke R once again for my own tradition of feeding the ducks in Waterlow Park. Silke is currently staying in the flat attached to Archway Video, the film rental library on Archway Road where we both once worked. An independent family business since the 1980s, the shop stocked a huge range of films, first on VHS, then DVD, and eventually, Blu-Ray. The customers included Daniel Craig, Maureen Lipman, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Brett Anderson of Suede. This year, the shop is an empty shell, closed for good since the summer. Silke now works for Odeon, an irony given that video shops were first thought to be bringing about the death of cinema. It wasn’t cinema that killed video shops, though, but online services like Lovefilm, Netflix, and of course Amazon.
In Muswell Hill a few months ago I bumped into one of the shop’s old customers. ‘I do miss that shop,’ he said fondly. ‘Though of course I hadn’t been in for years.’ He didn’t seem to notice how one statement was related to the other.
Thursday 26th December 2013.
With the lack of traffic on Boxing Day, combined with the sense of enforced family gatherings reaching the point of strained boredom, some local teenagers play football in the street outside. I first worry about them breaking any windows, but then I realise that young people playing ball games in the road is very old indeed. All the museum photos say so.
I walk around St Pancras in the afternoon. Most of the people I see fall into two categories. There’s aimlessly wandering tourists, who seem baffled that everything is shut for a second day. A handful of them climb on the gates of the British Library to take photos of the empty piazza. The other category is football fans, because Boxing Day means sport. People in Chelsea scarves are looking particularly pleased with themselves.
Friday 27th December 2013.
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2013.
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.
, dave eggers
, gay issues
, hackney picturehouse
, hamish bowles
, isabella blow
, london review bookshop
, london wall
, museum of london
, Proper Letters
, ronald firbank
, The London Library
, time out
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.
, 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
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. 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
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.
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