The Owl of Minerva

Friday 29 May 2020. We’re all in this together. Except that some of us are more in it than others. The pandemic has exposed everyone’s technological limitations; if you can’t afford super-fast broadband and a decent computer, your lockdown life is going to be rather more locked than others.

My old desktop is dying, and the cheap (£75) mini-PC I bought to replace it can barely run Microsoft Word without stalling. So I finally buy a new laptop. The price is £250, which is the most I can afford. Happily, this just about works for video meetings, a function which for many is now the difference between employment and the dole. I have to spend an arduous volume of time updating the software. One might have thought that someone who had written a diary online for twenty years would be good with computers, or at the very least interested in their workings. But I am entirely incurious. I just want the things to work. And if you’re living on a low budget, things tend to not work. Still, I can speak to Mum via video now. At the beginning of the lockdown, we spoke every day.

*

Sunday 7 June 2020. The schools remain closed. I read a Sunday Times supplement on home schooling. Here, parents are provided with ready-made lessons written by teachers. One lesson on English grammar requires the pupil to identify ‘forward adverbials’. This is aimed at 8-year-olds.

*

Thursday 11 June 2020. A day of relief. I have my PhD funding extended, to allow for the obstacles created by the pandemic. I’ll now remain a full time PhD student until October 2021. By that point I’ll be fifty and (I hope) finishing the thesis. What then? No plans, but then no one knows what the world will be like in late 2021 anyway. The grant is still only £17k a year to live on, but it’s work I enjoy. And it certainly could be worse.

*

Tuesday 13 June 2020. I ‘attend’ an online arts event: a Q & A with the film director Carol Morley. The software encourages you to have your webcam switched on throughout the event, even if you’re not asking a question. I am distracted by seeing the silent faces of the other attendees watching in their various homes.  If this were a physical event it would be like letting audience members spend the occasion clambering over the seats, scrutinising each other’s’ faces and demanding them to explain their bookshelves.

*

Wednesday 14 June 2020. I watch You Don’t Nomi, an arthouse documentary about the strange afterlife of the 1990s big-budget film Showgirls. When Showgirls was released it was deemed laughably poor. Since then the film has acquired a cult following, almost on the level of Rocky Horror. It’s a good example of Sontag’s ‘naïve camp’ at play; camp by accident. That said, in this new documentary the Showgirls star and director insist that the whole thing was meant to be tongue-in-cheek from the off. I believe Gina Gershon, one of the other actors, though, when she says she played her role like a drag queen.  

We now speak of ‘optics’ – how something looks, though whom to is never quite specified. Something looking ‘bad’ can result in the tainting of a brand, even the sacking of staff.

But not always. Consider our prime minister, a ‘character’ with a strong look, who cares little what people think, as long as they’re looking. This is how camp becomes a weapon. If you make a surface exaggerated enough, it becomes non-stick. Bad films are redeemed with new appeal, bad politicians keep their jobs.

*

Thursday 15 June 2020. One sign of things returning to normal is that today I get a catcall in the street. On Dalston Kingsland High Street I overhear, in my direction: ‘Exterminate! Exterminate! He looks like f–ing…’

I presume they mean Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who. Particularly in his later episodes, with his hair grown out, looking mad and untamed. He rather anticipated the lockdown look.

*

Tuesday 20 June 2020. My local bookshop, Burley Fisher, has re-opened but cannot let customers inside. Instead they have a table across the entrance. The staff stand behind this, fetching books like a kiosk.

*

Friday 26 June 2020. To Clissold Park for tentative drinks in the park with Ms Shanthi and friends. We try to socially distance, but this turns out to be quite difficult, particularly when we stand under a tree to shelter from the English summer rain. The instinct when in company is always to move closer. After a few drinks, even more so. The fear now is that two’s company, three’s an outbreak. Fun has become a minefield of worry.

*

Wednesday 28 June 2020. People are starting to go on foreign holidays where they can. I can’t share the sentiment: the germ is abroad too. At the moment, I’ll settle for being allowed to visit other parts of London.

*

Monday 6th July 2020. The lockdown has relaxed to the point where the London Library has reopened. This is my idea of civilisation returning. I’m keen to avoid public transport as much as I can, so I begin a new routine of long walks every morning, from Dalston into the city.

In the main reading room of the LL the armchairs have gone. All the desks are carefully marked, with chairs removed at some desks, so that everyone is at least 2 metres apart. I don’t last long in this particular space, though: someone behind me starts coughing.

*

Tuesday 7th July 2020. Haircuts are allowed again. Kommy at Cuts and Bruises, 57 Stoke Newington Road, cuts mine while wearing a clear visor. I wear a mask. Somehow he pins back the straps on my mask to the collar guard, so he can cut the hair around my ears. Colouring appointments are still not available, though, so I bleach my hair myself, using a Jerome Russell ‘B-Blonde No.1’ kit. £5.

*

Wednesday 8 July 2020. The pandemic has meant there’s more bicycles about, along with e-scooters, those powered standing platforms that are suddenly everywhere. The e-scooters manage to look unsafe on both the road and the pavement. I’ve seen a dad take his small daughter to school on one, the child holding onto his legs as he swerves around cars. I suppose that’s an example of risk assessment: avoiding death by virus, at the risk of death by traffic accident.

Each to their own, I suppose, though I resent the way this new trend also endangers pedestrians. Quite often now I find myself close to being hit by an e-scooter or a bicycle going at full speed, even though I am just walking on the pavement.

*

Thursday 9 July 2020. Am sitting in outdoor cafes more often, a new favourite being the one in Red Lion Square Gardens.

The virus has brought out the city in spots. London is covered in circular stickers on the pavement, marking the limits of two metres, or a one-way route, or both.

At the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Grays Inn Road: a sticker on a post: ‘MASKS ARE BAD FOR YOU’.

*

Saturday 11 July 2020. To Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for a private view of Sophie Parkin’s paintings. All painted by her during the lockdown. This is my one big social evening out of the summer, though there’s still only a handful of people here, all invited and registered. I enjoy myself, but as with many of my occasional social occasions during the pandemic, I spend subsequent days worrying in case I’ve done something irresponsible.

*

Wednesday 15 July 2020. Much conversation online about the meaning of statues. Something about the invisible nature of a virus has heightened the awareness of more visible cruelties. Statues of slave traders are being pulled down by protesters, most sensationally with the Edward Colston statue in Bristol.

Toppling statues activates their meaning. It blows off the dust. Only then does the ‘valuable history lesson’ that their defenders point to take place. The Colston statue certainly failed to enter my consciousness until now, and I lived in Bristol for three years.

I’m intrigued by the date of the statue: late 1800s, a whole century and a half after his death. So it represents not just Restoration prosperity but also late Victorian anxiety over the end of Empire. And now, the toppling says something about the anxieties of 2020.

*

Friday 17 July 2020. Tickets are released for the reopening of the British Library. Predictably the servers crash at once. It’s Glastonbury for researchers.

*

Saturday 25 July 2020. First time back at the British Library. We’re allocated a specific desk in the reading rooms, but it’s only for three hours maximum per week. And we have to wear a mask.

I manage to stop my glasses fogging up after much initial frustration. What I don’t do is wear a mask with my nose poking out, which many people do as a compromise. Half-arsed faces.

*

Tuesday 28 July 2020. Thinking of Hilary Mantel’s new essay collection Mantel Pieces, I’m now wondering if Shooting an Elephant should have been called Orwell and Good. Against Interpretation could have been Sontag, Bloody Sontag.

*

Thursday 30 July 2020. Something the film director Whit Stillman shares with Angela Carter: they both put seminars on Ronald Firbank in their work (Stillman’s film Damsels in Distress; Carter’s radio play A Self-Made Man).

*

Friday 31 July 2020. Working from home isn’t easy for a lodger. My rented bedroom is not designed to be a full-time office for months on end. Thankfully, Birkbeck have allocated an empty classroom on the Torrington Square campus, in Bloomsbury, to myself and two other full-time PhD students. This will last until the college library reopens in October.

I’m usually the only one in the empty classroom; the security guards have to unlock the room for me specially. There’re so few people in the building, it’s like The Shining. One of the security guards says they’ve had to remove the occasional homeless person from the classrooms.

*

Thursday 6 Aug 2020. At the Museum of London. Some of the displays are still closed off, as they’re in alcoves where socially distancing is impossible. Instead there are barriers with signs saying ‘Please view from here’. With bleak irony, these include the ones on the Black Death.

*

Saturday 8 August 2020. To Enfield to house-sit for Shanthi S. ‘It’s like The Detectorists around here’.  

*

Tuesday 18 August 2020. From a documentary on Philip Glass, I learn that the composer has an Allen Ginsberg quotation taped to his piano, by way of motivation. It’s from Memory Gardens (1969):

‘Well, while I’m here, I’ll do the work –
And what’s the Work?

To ease the pain of living.

Everything else, drunken dumbshow.’

*

Weds 19 August 2020. First trip out of London since March, to see Mum. We choose to meet for lunch in Manningtree, a halfway point between Mum and London. I’m still too nervous about going much further out of the city. We eat outdoors in the garden of the restaurant Lucca. As per the advice, we sit at an angle rather than directly facing each other, and we don’t hug or touch.

*

Monday 24 August 2020. The more likely the end of the world, the more I shave and put on a tie.

*

Saturday 29 August 2020. Hurtling towards the age of 49. I ponder the increasing evidence in my face and consider damage limitation. And yet, I don’t want to be one of those men who grow a beard out of sheer resentment at not dying young.

I’m uneasy that I’m still a very odd person. On the plus side, it’s such a comfort.

*

As part of my PhD, I’m consulting the British Library’s archive of Angela Carter’s papers: her unpublished letters, manuscripts and notebooks. I recognise much of the material Edmund Gordon included in his biography The Invention of Angela Carter. One example is the phrase she uses when ending a letter to her partner Mark, written while she was away in America. ‘Please miss me’.

*

Tuesday 1 Sept 2020. To the Rio cinema for Tenet with Jon S. I give up trying to make sense of the premise and just enjoy the nice suits.

*

Thursday 3 Sept 2020. My 49th birthday. I take a solo day trip on the train to Brighton. Quite a lot of people about, albeit with signs advising social distancing, including on the pier. Prosecco dinner in the Palm Court on the pier. I sit in various cafes and bars, including the ‘Loading’ gaming bar on the beachfront. I don’t join in with any of the computer games or board games. I just look on with my glass of wine, a little confused as to how I ended up here or where I’m going next. But happy to still be around.

*

Saturday 5 September 2020. At the British Library, I find a note by Angela Carter in one of her journals from the 1980s, all the more amusing given she was once a Booker Prize judge: ‘The Owl of Minerva as a title – from “The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk”- Hegel. It’s got a nice, solid, Booker-Prizeish ring to it.’

*

8 September 2020. Life in 2020: seeing an unknown number on the phone and immediately worrying that it’s Track and Trace (it was a wrong number).

*

13 September 2020. A favourite quote, usually attributed to Doris Lessing: ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.’ I’ve seen this quote many times, and though I like the sentiment I can’t find any proof that Lessing said these actual words.

‘Do it now’ risks giving Lessing’s name the quality of a Nike ad. Though perhaps that’s the ultimate goal for a writer anyway.

*

Friday 18 September 2020. To Bildeston in Suffolk for dinner at the Crown pub with Mum. This is my third trip out of London since March, and my first to the village I grew up in since last Christmas. We eat outdoors: it’s warm and pleasant. Mum is now making online videos for her classes on quilt-making. She has over two hundred subscribers.

*

Sunday 27 Sept 2020. Reading The Young and Evil, which is so rare I have to refer to a copy at archive.org. Some authors are claiming that archive.org breaches copyright to the point of piracy. They have no idea what a lifeline it’s been to students during the pandemic. I think of the remark made (I think) by Tim Berners-Lee around the time of Napster, with people downloading music. ‘Make it easy for people to do the right thing’.

It’s also like the 1980s campaign, ‘Home Taping Kills Music’. Home taping did the reverse: new generations of people, unable to afford records, were inspired to make music of their own. Why are these lessons never learned?

*

Friday 2 Oct 2020. The National Gallery does Titian face coverings. I wonder what kind of person would buy such a thing. Then I realise it’s me, and buy one.

Branded masks are the way forward now. Bands who do t-shirts need to get into masks. If this was 1990, the Inspiral Carpets would be known for selling more masks than records.

*

Tuesday 6 Oct 2020. Dinner with Shanthi S in Pizza Express, Upper Street, Islington. The place is close to empty. Many of the other branches of PE in London have closed temporarily or for good. She takes a couple of photos, giving me the air of an Edward Hopper painting.

*

Friday 9 Oct 2020. From my bedroom I attend the first online lecture of the new academic year. The lecturer supplies a video recording, seven days in advance, complete with slides and subtitles. Then on the evening itself we can put questions to her live. The lack of being in the same room is a drawback, but being able to pause a lecture and revisit different points is a great help to retaining the information. Something is lost, but something is gained.

*

Tuesday 13 Oct 2020. Mr Johnson announces a ‘three tier’ system for new restrictions, as the coronavirus cases are rising once again. New metaphors take the stage. What might happen now is a short return to lockdown, or a ‘circuit breaker’. What depresses now is the feeling of being trapped in time as much as place. A sense of these things never ending.

*

Thursday 22 October 2020.  To the Dalston Rio to see Saint Maud, an arty British horror film. The film is atmospheric and confident, if small in scale. It plays throughout with the question of whether supernatural events are really happening, or whether they’re all in the mind of the protagonist. There’s a good use of an off-season Scarborough, its beach and hills. The lead actor, Morfydd Clark, couldn’t be more different from the last role I saw her in, the dog-wielding Dora in David Copperfield.

The Rio cinema has managed to stay open into the second wave of the pandemic, and tonight there’s a healthy amount of audience, all socially distanced and masked, our temperatures checked on the way in. The nearest rival, Hackney Picturehouse, has closed along with the rest of the Picturehouse and Cineworld chains. The blame has gone on the big studios for postponing the noisier, big-budget titles, such as the new James Bond. This is a time of quieter films, for quieter streets.

**
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A Lodger In Lockdown

Sunday 15 March 2020. To the Tate Britain for the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, principally as I suspect it will be the last chance to visit a gallery for some time. I go by myself and am careful to keep my distance in the exhibition rooms, not lingering too long in one place. There is a degree of irony risking a respiratory virus in order to see work by a man who coughed himself to death. But there is a positive lesson too, with Beardsley producing a large amount of work in a short life, all the time coping with a serious illness that he’d had from childhood. Of the works I see today, I especially like his androgynous self-portrait, ‘The Art Editor of the Yellow Book’.

The last room is on AB’s 1960s influence – the sleeve to Revolver, and a grotesque Gerald Scarfe caricature in which Beardsley has a sinewy nude female body, vagina to the fore, accompanied by a homunculus with an enormous erect penis. Even in 2020 this image is hidden behind its own pair of curtains on the gallery wall, as if it were a plaque waiting to be unveiled by a particularly permissive monarch.

A few years ago, I went to the British Library in St Pancras to consult Brigid Brophy’s Black and White, her illustrated monograph on Beardsley. The library filed the book as Restricted Material. This means you must go to a special designated desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, separated from the normal desks and close to the view of a staff member working nearby. I suspect it is unofficially known as the Naughty Desk.

*

Monday 16 March 2020. Coronavirus cases are now in their thousands. Britain is heading for the unthinkable: a state of national lockdown. I call Mum in Suffolk. Thankfully she’s in good health, and has friends and neighbours checking in on her every day, keeping their distance when they do so. We talk on the phone every day (and later, we Skype).

Arguments are circulating over the definition of ‘essential’, over what is permitted and what is not. The official advice is vague, so it’s no wonder everyone on social media has suddenly become an expert on a brand new disease.

Who is happy to admit that their work is not ‘essential’, though? Particularly in London, the city where everyone, even the lowliest entertainment blogger, thinks that what they do is of vital importance?

And oh, the constant content. The emails reminding one that everyone else is being so fabulously productive, with their new TV programmes on streaming platforms, with their podcasts and their articles and their virtual events. All of which makes it harder for me to write a word. Why add more drops to the tide? Logging on, or picking up the phone, one now goes from a world of stillness into a world of excess and noise.

I’ve found that one solution is reading more books, away from the screen. Books reset the brain into deeper thinking, forcing the mind into coping with one thing at a time. No scrolling, no live updates. A book never asks you to accept cookies. That is, unless it’s a cookbook.

Still, I know that what I write in this diary (and with the thesis, which is essentially a book) is exclusive and original in its own odd little way. It’s like Quentin Crisp’s description of the party at the end of the world: ‘that happy hubbub where everyone is speaking and no one is listening’.

*

Tuesday 17 March 2020. London’s galleries, museums, libraries, cinemas, bars and cafes are either closing today or announcing imminent closure. It’s my last day in the carrel at Senate House Library. I empty the little room and return the key.

The meaning of London has changed now. The point of London for me – and many others – is the cultural life. Things to go to. Without those, one might as well be anywhere. If so many people can work from home, where does home need to be? Perhaps when this is over there will finally be reasonable rents, to stop mass homelessness and society grinding to a halt. I idly dream of a great conversion of London’s empty offices into flats which even people like me can afford. Or perhaps that is truly thinking the unthinkable.

*

Wednesday 18 March 2020. First day of working from home in Dalston.  The house I live in is shared by myself and my landlady. With the lockdown, both of us are in the house most of the time, which makes me aware of my lodger status more acutely. A lodger shares a space, but cannot fully inhabit. As kind as my landlady is (she sometimes cooks us both dinner), I stay out of the kitchen as much as I can and try to be a minimum presence, to the point of invisibility. I never cook. I live mainly on pre-cooked cold supermarket food in lieu of the café meals I used to have: sandwiches, fruit, snack bars, instant noodles. I do all my eating in my room and stay in there most of the day, working on my PhD. Or trying to work. My days of taking the Tube or going on buses are over for some time.

‘A Lodger in Lockdown’ sounds like the title of a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

This is my life now. Just the bedroom, and sometimes the bathroom and the kitchen, occasionally going into the immediate neighbourhood of Dalston and Stoke Newington for shopping and exercise. It certainly could be worse. Many people are locked in with children all day, whom they now have to home-school. I do not envy them. There’s been some predictions of a baby boom, but also of a rise in divorces.

*

Thursday 19 March 2020. If children are the least at risk, and there are no schools, perhaps they can just run things. I have seen Bugsy Malone.

*

Friday 20 March 2020. The government has closed all non-essential shops, including  hairdressers. It is going to be an interesting time for hair.

Some inadvertent humour. Stonehenge has been closed, to stop people gathering at sunrise for the spring equinox. From the Guardian today comes the following quote from a frustrated druid:

‘Stuart Hannington, a druid, also stayed behind the fence, accepting it was fair to restrict access. “They’re closing the churches so it seems okay that they are not allowing us to get to the stones. It’s disappointing but we have to make sacrifices.”

*

Saturday 21 March 2020. Email from Paypal saying ‘we’ve noticed you’ve been particularly impacted by recent customer behaviour’. By which they mean there have been hardly any donations to my diary. If they really noticed, they’d see that this is not much of a change. Talk about rubbing it in.

One of the main reasons I prefer to work in libraries is that the house is too cold to be in all day during the winter months. I am sensitive to the cold more than most (and more than my landlady), and can’t afford to put the heating on very often. I am writing this wearing a coat indoors.

*

Monday 23 March 2020. My GP has suspended face-to-face appointments. Boris Johnson appears on TV to announce the official beginning of the UK lockdown, several days after many of us have made a start. So here we are in history. 

One of the new clichés being bandied around by journalists is the phrase ‘the new normal’. I find this doubly depressing. The repetition of the phrase indicates insincerity, while the implication is that this situation is permanent. New it might be, but this is not normal. If it were, we would not be holding out hope for a vaccine. The phrase is also a contradiction in terms: if something is new, it cannot be normal. Normality is a state of affairs that have lasted. Perhaps, like capitalism, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of PR.

*

Tuesday 24 March 2020. The government sends a text message to every UK phone: ‘You must stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ Words chosen for their hardness, shortness, and impact, from the team who brought us ‘Get Brexit Done’. This time Britain is trying to exit a global pandemic, a sentiment which at least unites everyone.

*

Wednesday 25 March 2020. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a Windows Update. I’m spending hours wrestling with a mini-PC, bought cheaply to replace my aging and noisy desktop computer. Normally I use the PCs in university libraries. The only machines I can afford for myself are the ones that don’t work. It’s not just me: the whole situation has revealed just how many British households are without decent computers, or computers at all. Some poorer parents are home-schooling their children through their smartphones. We are being told that ‘we’re in this together’, but some are more in it than others.

*

Tonight I had been booked (unpaid) to appear at an event held by the University of London Bibliophile Society, to speak about collecting books on a gay and lesbian theme. Now, of course, it has to be done online. Thankfully the organisers are not expecting me to appear via a web-camera and some sort of software (the current preference is called Zoom), which is a relief as the cheap mini-PC has turned out to be so cheap that it can’t cope with web-chatting. As it is, I have no experience in addressing an audience through a web camera and am in no hurry to start.

Instead, the event takes place on Twitter, which I do have experience in. First, I publish my talk online as a Word file (https://uolbibliophiles.wordpress.com/2020/03/25/an-online-panel-discussion-collecting-lgbtq/).

Then I take questions on Twitter via my account there (@dickon_edwards), in tandem with the hashtag #uolbibliophiles. It’s a frustrating experience, as not only is my computer slow, but I realise I am so much slower at tweeting than most. I manage about three questions before the 30 mins of questioning is up.

I am a little unhappy about this, feeling forced into a new digital Darwinian era that favours only those who have fast computers and fast computer skills. I worry now that I have even less place in a pandemic-hit world than I did in the one before. 

Still, one positive result is that my enforced slowness makes me aware of my own sense of being out of sync with the world, and that this is something I should embrace rather then try to disguise.

The trouble with joining in is that you end up sounding like everyone else. So in this way, computer ineptitude can be a kind of dandyism. In a world of constant availability, it makes sense to play a little hard to get. I hope I can benefit from the value of rarity. The fear, though, is of being so different that no one will want to read my work at all.

Thanks to the event, I learn a new detail about my copy of the 1986 Penguin edition of Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot. The book is inscribed from John Mortimer, who wrote the introduction, to a ‘Phyllis’. I am now assured by one of the event attendees, @blackwellrare, that this Phyllis is PD James, whose copy it must have been.

*

Thursday 26 March 2020. I clap out of my window, trying hard not to shout ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.’

*

I fear my hair may be heading for the Peroxide Broccoli look. Still shaving and wearing a tie every day.

*

Saturday 28 March 2020. ‘Interesting times’ can do one. Ronald Firbank’s phrase for the First World War was ‘that awful persecution’. We could start using that.

*

Monday 30 March 2020. Getting hold of e-books online has turned out to be rather more time-consuming than I thought. The irony is that print would be quicker, if only the libraries were open. On top of the social inequality, the virus has revealed an inequality in digitised books. Contrary to what Google implies, a large amount of knowledge has never been digitised full stop.

*

Tuesday 31 March 2020. I go to the Post Office on Dalston High Street. The queue extends right down the street, with people standing at 2 metre distances from each other. It takes at least 30 minutes before I get to the counter, for a transaction of ten seconds. Supermarkets are the same. I find myself resenting people who queue as couples, as they take up more space inside the shop and so make social distancing even harder. What I am really resenting, of course, is that they are couples.

*

Tuesday 2 April 2020. A current social media idiom is ‘the hill to die on’, presumably coming from military slang. It means a belief so important that the person holding the belief is willing to fight to the death for it. I suppose the hill I’m happy to die on is Aubrey Beardsley’s Under the Hill.

*

Friday 3 April 2020. I have made myself laugh by using ‘untroubled’ as an insult.

*

Saturday 4 April 2020. PhD writing. I compare Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) to the ‘category is’ aspect of drag contests. It makes sense in context, I tell myself.

*

Monday 6 April 2020. Still shaving, still putting on a tie. As Boris Johnson goes into intensive care, I write about camp in Joyce’s ‘Circe’.

*

Tuesday 7 April 2020: ‘In 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that.’ – Orwell, Inside the Whale (1940).

*

Saturday 11 April 2020. I am just about to disagree with someone on Twitter when I stop myself. I hope that shows growth.

*

Wednesday 15 April 2020. A fly-tipper has left a bag of their rubbish outside our door. If they can be identified from it, I may track them down and play Patricia Highsmith-style games with their mind. Criminals often make the mistake of assuming I’m normal.

Later: I resist this impulse and blandly report it to the council. This time. The fly-tipping, not the Highsmithian impulses. This time.

*

Sunday 19 April 2020. The Sunday Times is now very thin, particularly the sections on travel and sport. In the travel section, what articles there are comprise memories of travelling in the past. Remember travel? A headline in the supplement on home furnishings reads: ‘Cheery Lockdown Linens.’

*

Wednesday 22 April 2020. Some personal good news. My work on the PhD has been deemed good enough to pass the mid-point ‘upgrade’. When PhD students start their course, they are registered as doing an MPhil (or more generously, a ‘MPhil/PhD’). An MPhil is a qualification halfway between an MA or MSc (ie a Master’s) and a PhD. The idea is that if your work isn’t good enough by this point you have the option of either redoing it, which takes even more time, or settling for switching to the easier MPhil. If your work is good enough, you are ‘upgraded’ to PhD student status proper. So I’m relieved and very pleased. Halfway through.

*

Thursday 23 April 2020. I have one of those days where being weird feels a crippling disadvantage. One must remember what weirdness can also be: a shield.

*

Thursday 30 April 2020. Not quite going crazy yet. But not quite not, too. Today’s slice of self pity: even prisoners can go to a library. The whole point of the bohemian rented room lifestyle is that the room is somewhere to rest one’s head, not to live in constantly. Still, even self-pity is a sign of some lust for life. Earlier today I couldn’t even be bothered to beat myself up.

*

Saturday 2 May 2020. Take strength from your own weirdness.

*

Saturday 9 May 2020. I have just discovered that Bic Orange Fine pens now come in a more comfortable ‘grip’ version. So it’s not all bad.

*

Sunday 10 May 2020. Another day in the Soft Apocalypse. Mr Johnson’s gesture of ‘drunkenly inserting the key in the Yale lock after a night out’ almost makes one yearn for the days of Mr Blair’s ‘here’s my big fish’.

*

Monday 11 May 2020. I wish I’d learned about Bentham’s theory of the Panopticon when I was at school. If only so I could tell the bullies who always sat on the back seat of the bus why they did such a thing.

*

Tuesday 12 May 2020. Am getting very little work done. It’s hard to be productive when you’re surrounded by historical events, major social change, and daily death tolls.

*

Wednesday 20 May 2020. Warm weather, and I’m finally wearing single layers, but am still feeling cold all the time. I report this to a GP, an appointment which can only be carried out on the phone. She thinks it’s more likely to be related to my lack of exercise. ‘Sitting is the new smoking’, she says. I want to say, ‘No it isn’t’. 

The problem is that no one is allowed to be ill from anything other than COVID-19. The arrogance of this virus. Other illnesses can’t get a word in edgeways. Only when you can mention the virus do you exist. Corona is the only game in town, as Karen Carpenter didn’t quite sing.

*

Thursday 21 May 2020. At 8pm I go downstairs and open the front door to clap for the NHS. Standing right in front of the house are three people, two women and a man in their 30s, eating hamburgers from polystyrene cartons, using as a shelf the wall of the house’s small yard. These unanchored face-fillers are completely unabashed by my appearance, even though I’ve suddenly materialised next to them. In fact, they join in the clapping half-heartedly, and we all stand there in silence, clapping away, resident and loitering scoffers alike.

Such is life off Dalston Kingsland High Street. I’ve occasionally opened the door to find someone sitting on the doorstep, using it to sit and eat, or smoke and drink. Reflecting now, I realise that one should currently be more sympathetic to the eating aspect. London’s cafes and restaurants are only allowed to operate in takeaway and delivery form. The pleasure of eating out is rather compromised by not being allowed an ‘out’ in which to eat out in.

*

Saturday 23 May 2020. My first proper coffee in eight weeks. Pret a Manger in Dalston is open for takeaways. On the door is a sign requesting six customers at one time. Inside the café there are marks on the floor to ensure the customers stand apart at two metres. The counter now has a perspex screen with holes cut out at the bottom, like a bank. There is no sitting allowed inside, in line with the government rules. All those empty seats and tables, close to hand but forbidden.

I watch a documentary on the comedian Tony Slattery, who has suffered heavily from depression and alcohol addiction. One particular regret of his feels familiar: ‘Nothing gets done’. A therapist reminds him that he once gave up cocaine with no problems: ‘You’ve got form, mate’. Slattery ends the film hoping to sort himself out. The documentary’s popular reception should surely help him. Recovery is easier if you declare your goals before strangers. It’s when you keep them to yourself that they evaporate too easily.

*

Sunday 24 May 2020. The Prime Minister’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, is caught breaking the lockdown rules. A number of people, reportedly his neighbours, protest in his street as he goes to and from his home. It’s a pleasant, expensive street in Islington. If they are indeed his neighbours, perhaps some sort of Ballardian middle class riot is on the cards. It would be especially karmic for a PM with roots in the Bullingdon Club.

*

Monday 25 May 2020. The Cummings saga rolls on. There is something very British in arguing over when it is best to visit a castle.

*

Thursday 28 May 2020. Some thoughts on craft. When trying to write, and battling the usual insecurities about one’s talent, it is useful to think about craft. ‘Talent’ suggests vanity, glamour, contingency. It suggests Britain’s Got Talent, standing up on a stage, only to be told to go away. ‘Craft’, on the other hand, suggests the opposite of glamour: an invisible artisan, sitting down in a workshop, toiling away with little credit. But it also suggests humility, productivity, accomplishment: qualities essential to any work. Craft shows, talent shows off. 

There is a good reason why the phrase ‘a waste of craft’ is less common than ‘a waste of talent’. A crafted work may be deemed underwhelming, but in noting its craft there is still the recognition that new work has been contributed, time invested, labour applied,  skills drawn upon. Take the recent film of Cats. On its release last Christmas, film critics overwhelming insisted that it was terrible. Yet craft it remains: work was done, something new was made. It can still be of use, if only as an entertaining example of folly. Or just as something to pass the time that is different. And someone somewhere might disagree with the critics (the director for one, I hope).

Talent says: ‘just do it’. Craft says: ‘just make it’. Talent lives in fear of being disliked, of being ‘cancelled’. Craft shrugs its shoulders and gets on with it.

*

This online diary was begun in 1997. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or clickbait. The author is in need of financial support, however. Giving money is a way to indicate that something has value. Thank you!

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Journal of a Plague Moment

4 January 2020. My talk ‘Notes on Camp 2019’ has been published at the Birkbeck website: http://www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk/notes-on-camp-2019. Somehow I relate Ronald Firbank to Killing Eve.

**

6 January 2020. I read Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters, as bought at Ripley and Lambert, the new film bookshop in Dalston. Waters: ‘You need two people to think your work is good – yourself and somebody else (not your mother). Once you have a following, no matter how limited, your career can be born.’

 **

7 January 2020. With Jon S to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at the Tottenham Court Road Odeon. This is a half-hearted and essentially forgettable work. Star Wars is surely an exhausted franchise by now. The scent of desperation is palpable: trying to make something new yet not too new, and trying too hard to please the fans, who are never happy anyway. Stevie Smith once replied to a fan, ‘You liked my book and want more of the same? Read it again.’

The Odeon’s idea of a ‘small’ popcorn is a giant overpriced bucket of the stuff. That this sort of thing still goes on at cinemas is baffling. To prefer arthouse cinemas might seem snobbish, but the present management at Odeon seem utterly uninterested in such things as beauty and reason.

**

9 January 2020. Woolf’s diary for the 20th of February 1930, on wasting time, which now seems to predict social media. ‘This fiddling and drifting and not impressing oneself upon anything – this always refraining and fingering and cutting things up into little jokes and facetiousness – that’s what’s so annihilating.’

**

14 January 2020. To the Glory pub in Lower Dalston, also known as Haggerston, for an evening of work in progress variety acts. I’m there for ‘Velvet Webb’, the drag character of Ivan Kirby. She’s wonderful, like Victoria Wood’s Kitty mixed with Elizabeth Taylor in Boom. Drag is very popular now, a good thing, as it lends itself to such a wide range of creativity. At the heart of this trend is the feeling that all is camp now anyway – we only have to look to the politicians. In a time of too much imagery, people with noisy, exaggerated appearances cut through. We are living through a time of Populist Camp.

**

18 January 2020. I read Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James, and find myself coming across lines that Dad once quoted to me in delight, decades ago: ‘We scored no goals. Count them – none.’ There’s an unexpected reference to Firbank, as the sort of name dropped by pretentious students: ‘As they worked, Cameron and Spencer kept up an exchanged of allusive wit that I found at once daunting and exhilarating. Spencer called something Firbankian. Who, what or where was Firbankian?’

Later on, the student James educates himself on these figures, and puts on a stage show. Against a modern jazz soundtrack, he takes to the stage and improvises ‘monologues in which such names as Ford Madox Ford and Ronald Firbank figured prominently. The audience stormed the exits.’

**

23 January 2020. Looking around on the Tottenham Court Road today, 80% of the men have the same look. A beard and a beanie hat. If nothing else, I like to think I supply punctuation.

**

25 January 2020. My income as a fully funded PhD student is £17,000 a year, which though appreciated does not go very far. Many PhDs do paid work alongside their research, usually teaching. For my part, I am relying more and more on donations to the diary, my only asset.

Money is the way we indicate value. If you think a work has value, and the creator is asking for donations, the right thing to do is donate.

**

28 January 2020. The phrase “limp-wristed lullabies” suddenly surfaces in my memory. It’s from a 1990s Huggy Bear record sleeve, I think. It certainly sums up my present interests.

**

30 January 2020. A Ronald Firbank field trip. To Borough Green with three fellow Firbank enthusiasts: Richard Canning, Alan Hollinghurst and John Byrne (not the Scottish writer). We have dinner at the home of Jenny Firbank, widow of Digory Firbank, grandson of Ronald’s uncle (Charles Herbert Firbank). Also present is her son Charlie, which makes him the great-great-grandson of Ronald’s grandfather, old Joseph Firbank, the Victorian railway builder. Joseph is the other family member in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  The entry for Ronald was written by Alan Hollinghurst. I mention this at dinner. ‘Thanks for that’, says Charlie. ‘I think I was paid £25,’ says Mr H.

We’re here to see one of Jenny’s possessions, the rare Alvaro Guevara painting of Ronald from 1919, in which he is shown sitting in his flat at 48 Jermyn Street. Firbank described it at the time as ‘a perfectly brutal little study’ of himself ‘huddled up in a black suit by a jar of Orchids, in a décor suggestive of Opium – or (even) worse!’ Jenny also has a wonderful print by Jean Carzou: a spiky masked female harlequin, in silhouette.

I am given a present by Charlie F. It’s a paperback of Michael Moorcock’s Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius (1976; repr. London: Grafton, 1987). Charlie thought I’d like it for the following quote: ‘Things had come to a pretty pass when the work of Firbank was ignored in favour of his imitator Waugh whose prose, diffuse in comparison with that of his master, was thought to represent the best of English style.’

**

31 January 2020. Brexit fireworks in some parts of the country, but not in Dalston.

**

Tuesday 4 February 2020. I see the new David Copperfield film at Islington Vue, directed by Armando Iannucci. Colourful, energetic, blowing the dust off the source material. A deliberately multi-racial cast, too, seeing if Dickens can take the same treatment as Shakespeare. I hope there’s more like it.

**

4 February 2020. When buying a cinema ticket online, I am told: ‘Simply show this email on your phone’. It’s now the assumption that everyone has a smartphone, that ‘apps’ are as essential as shoes. When I go to meet my mother off a train at Liverpool Street, I find out that there’s no longer an arrivals board, showing which train arrives at which platform. I ask a staffer, who gives me the information by looking at his smartphone. ‘We assume people have phones these days’.

Even Alan Hollinghurst has a smartphone, as I discovered on the Firbank trip. I finally give in and buy an iPhone on the web, albeit a £99 refurbished SE model from four years ago. Modern life, here I come. 

** 

6 February 2020. I submit my PhD Upgrade document. This is the halfway point of the thesis, when a sample of 25,000 words has to be given to the university to be assessed. If it’s good enough, I am ‘upgraded’. If it’s not, I may have to do the PhD equivalent of being kept down a year. Here’s hoping.

**

7 February 2020. I abandon Clive James’s follow-ups to Unreliable Memoirs, tiring of his renaming of real people. An Australian feminist writer who was at Cambridge with him in the 60s is called ‘Romaine Rand’. This coy approach to memoir irritates me. If you’re going to change the names of real people, you may as well write an autobiographical novel. Memoir in this form has a dryness to it: a sense of not wanting to get one’s hands dirty. I realise that I’m doing some of that with this diary, but diaries make up for it with a heightened sense of immediacy, coupled with liberation from the necessities of longer forms. Diaries combine the snapshot with the lucky dip. No need to crowbar the material into a beginning, middle, and end. Just dip in.

**

8 February 2020. Keen to read more new novels, I finish Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. The book has been hyped as ‘the new Sally Rooney’, but it’s much wryer than Rooney, which I like. Final line: ‘And some days, Emira would carry the dread that if Briar [the child she sat for] struggled to find herself, she’d probably just hire someone to do it for her.’ On going to the mall: ‘Santa Claus made an appearance at the aquarium to say hello and talk about recycling.’

**

9 February 2020. ‘I KILL YOU’ shouts the teenage boy at me. This has just taken place at Euston tube station in the evening, by the ticket barriers. I was about to go through when I noticed the boy and a couple of his friends, all clad in black hooded tops and tracksuit trousers, are dodging the fare by squeezing behind other travellers as they walk through the automatic gates. Rather than let them use me in this manner, I back away from the barrier and watch them react. One of the boys is clearly the leader – this alone is interesting. He’s got through okay, but his friend who was hoping to wedge himself behind me has now been frustrated. From the other side of the barriers the leader looks back and gestures at his friend, indicating me as if to say: ‘use that guy, go through after him’. The friend shrugs in panic: ‘he won’t go through’. No one else is about. The friend gives up and vaults physically over the barrier – something I definitely did not do in my youth. By now the leader is staring directly at me. I stare back – a Paddington Bear stare. It is here that he shouts his death threat and runs off down the escalator with the others.

Why did I act this way? There’s some hypocrisy, as I did the same fare-dodging trick once or twice myself when I was his age. Today, I think one of my instincts is to play neither the whistleblower nor the accomplice, but the spanner in the works (the queer, in every sense). It’s the same instinct that once made me reply to a scam caller on the telephone with the words, ‘What are you wearing?’ Mainly, though, I sensed these boys were, unlike me at that age, not just fare-dodgers but alpha males, even illegal ones. Lads of violence. And given the death threat, I was right. Had he looked like me at that age I may have been more complicit. An unkind reader might suspect that, given the bad English of ‘I KILL YOU’, I was reacting against their revealed non-British status, but I’m not against that at all. It’s just the thuggery. Well, that and the bad dress sense.

I still feel some guilt over this, but none at all in the fact that I’ve never threatened violence, at least not pre-emptively. My core instinct is to challenge the assumptions of such lads that the world is theirs, and show how other ways of being are available too. I suppose that’s as close as I come to a credo.

As it is, I’ve been wished dead before. Usually by music critics.

**

23 February 2020. I’m currently typing up handwritten notes I made five years ago. Some of them I have no memory of writing. This is a form of communing with the dead. Every PhD hits a point where you start to research your own past self, the one whose idea it was.

**

27 February 2020. Re Orlando.To stop time, camp it up. One definition of camp modernism might be: ‘what if modernism but too much’.

**

28 February 2020. The coronavirus has meant that everyone must now wash their hands more regularly. This is hard on Default Man. Throughout my adult span, every time I have used a gents toilet, even a university one, I have seen a man walking straight from a urinal or a cubicle to the exit. Today, things are different. All it took was the realisation that the act can be a swagger. Men are now washing their hands in earnest, albeit with a lot of ostentation and noise. And possibly a sea shanty.

*

1 March 2020.  I am such a natural self-isolator that the only words spoken to me in person today have been ‘are you using this seat?’

A table of Young People in this pub, saying ‘the hill to die on’ too loud.

*

Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times today: ‘No amount of crossing your fingers and hoping will ever turn Leonora Carrington into a good painter […] She is always naff.’ It’s good when critics say this sort of thing, as it means you can confidently ignore everything else they will ever write.

**

2 March 2020. Britain has 39 cases of the new coronavirus, and Boris J has said it’s likely to become a serious problem in the coming weeks. All the Boots branches I visit today are out of hand sanitizing gel. It’s thought that some people have bought them in large amounts, not to stockpile for themselves but to resell for profit. It’s interesting what reactions the situation is bringing out in people: the best and the worst. As for me, I am panic-buying old editions of Ronald Firbank.

**

7 March 2020. ‘Two patients who tested positive for coronavirus have sadly died’. The word ‘sadly’ should, one would have thought, be implicit. Clearly not. This jarring little adverb, an added insult to the bad news, must now be supplied. A linguistic lubricant, lest the system behind it appear cruel. What will survive of us is not love, but PR.

**

9 March 2020. Finish Swimming in the Dark (2020) by Tomasz Jedrowsky. A gay romance among graduates, set in Poland during the early 80s. The dedication is moving alone: ‘To Laurent, my home’. Some beautiful prose: ‘The shame inside me melted like a mint on my tongue.’ The underrated power of gay books is touched upon, specifically Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, banned in Poland at the time. ‘Here was a book that seemed to have been written for me. It healed some of my agony and my pain, simply by existing.’ I’m irritated, though, by a party scene in which ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie plays. ‘Blondie’ is referred to as the singer, rather than the band. No excuse for that, not even communism.

**

10 March 2020. I see Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the Rio. Another historical gay romance, this time among women during the late 18th century, in a crumbling coastal château. The film dares to be slow and quiet, and lets the lingering gazes really linger. It’s a film about looking, particularly women looking at women, as opposed to Orlando, in which the gazing is queer but androgynous. Men are close to absent. The only line in this film said by a man is ‘Good morning’.  

**

11 March 2020. The UK now has over 400 cases, with 6 deaths, and it’s thought there’ll be much more. Assuming the virus will be defeated, it’s likely there will be more in its wake, unless humans change their crowded, globe-trotting ways. Looking for a silver lining, I wonder if air travel will become occasional and special again, even glamorous, rather than constant and humdrum. When I was at primary school, before the days of budget airlines, a nine-year-old classmate gave a talk about being on a plane; it was that unusual. I wasn’t aware that schools now took whole classes on Alpine skiing trips until the current news.

**

13 March 2020. The coronavirus has become a pandemic. The government has moved from ‘contain’ to ‘delay’. Birkbeck has cancelled its face-to-face classes. The library remains open today, though, as does Senate House Library, where I write in my rented carrel. This is a small lockable one-person study room, so I like to think this is self-isolating enough. Nevertheless, I’ve made sure that if I suddenly have to work from home, there’s nothing exclusive in the carrel that I need.

The challenge is to write about the virus without infecting the reader with cliché. Disease itself is of limited interest, unless you’re in medicine. Say something else, say something different.

**

All is Decameron cosplay now. One theme of the Decameron is the need to tell stories at a time of plague. Anecdotes, useful advice, fake news are all shared narratives, told within a frame story. The same tradition includes the Panchantra and the Canterbury Tales. A frame structure suggests a bandage effect; a need for containing and healing. There’s also a sense of infinite stories within the frame, like the 1001 Nights tales, told to stay an execution. Even a sci-fi blockbuster like Inception touches on this: Mr Leo and Mr Cillian have their traumas healed through dreams framed within dreams. And now we retweet to connect and heal, whether through anecdotes, observations, or jokes. As Ms Didion put it, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. But when we really feel in danger, we frame stories. We go deep.

The phrase ‘doing the rounds’ applies to jokes, observations, and anecdotes as much as diseases, hence ‘going viral’. Social media may be new, responding to plagues with storytelling is not.

Today (noon on Friday 13th March) I do not have one of the two key symptoms, a cough or a fever, at least not yet. Though I do have a dry throat and a flushed sensation that I’ve had before, one which doesn’t show up as a high temperature. What I think I have today is not a dose of the virus, but a dose of high anxiety.

**

Evening: to the National Portrait Gallery for the exhibition Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things. I decide it would be okay to go as long as I avoid crowds. I go during the NPG’s Friday late night slot, after the day-trippers from the regions have gone home. There’s only a few people in each room, and I keep my distance.

The walls, on the other hand, are crowded with beautiful ghosts. All the 1920s glamour and parties one can imagine. Lots of silver walls, glitter and shininess, all in Beaton’s exquisite black and white, plus a few paintings by Rex Whistler and the like. All the gang’s here. A young Evelyn Waugh cradling his pint of Guinness. Stephen Tennant lying down in profile as Prince Charming, first seen for me on the cover of an El Records sleeve. Today I own some of Tennant’s manuscripts.

There is a mention of Firbank in Beaton’s description of Sacheverell Sitwell: ‘He held forth, in the deepest coke-crackle voice, on such diverse subjects as the castrati, Offenbach, Norman wreaths, Ingres or Ronald Firbank’, while smoking Turkish cigarettes in ‘boyish, unformed hands’. Lots of 1920s cosplay. A young Beaton dresses up as King Cnut, sitting on a throne on a beach, close to the waves. His gesture to the sea is not the usual raised palm in ‘stop!’ mode, but a wagging finger. ‘Now, now, you naughty waves….’

A Beaton quote: ‘When I photographed Steven Runciman wearing his black hair in a fringe with a budgerigar poised on his ringed finger, looking obliquely into the camera in the manner of the Italian primitives, I knew I had not lived in vain.’ All this English camp was a response to the trauma of the First World War, just as the camp of Weimar Berlin responded to the Nazis. Camp often seems frivolous, even inappropriate, to others. But to some, camp is survival.

**

Saturday 14 March 2020. In the carrel. The lobby for the main Senate House building now has a large red sign saying ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19)’, followed by a status message. Yesterday this read ‘Business as usual’. Today it says: ‘Large events postponed. Avoid handshaking. Social distancing encouraged.’

Quentin Crisp once said: ‘There is danger in numbers’. So now we have a new definition for dandyism: self-distancing with style.

**

Sunday 15 March 2020. One joke doing the rounds, along with the virus, is about men having to talk to their wives for the first time, because of the cancellation of football matches. I am so grateful for being weird sometimes.

After looking at Twitter for a while today, exposing myself to so much news, hearsay, speculation, and terror, I make myself physically ill from information alone. Social distancing must include social media. Not isolation, not dependency, just moderation.

This online diary was begun in 1997. It is thought to be the longest running of its kind. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or clickbait. It depends entirely on donations by readers to keep it going. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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Some Passing Maniac

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

I wonder if that happens to Nick Cave?

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

 **

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

 **

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

Friday 13 December 2019. Masochism triumphs.

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**
This online diary was begun in 1997. It is thought to be the longest running of its kind. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or algorithms or clickbait. It depends entirely on donations by readers to keep it going. Thank you!

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DE’S New Year Message

This year’s Christmas tree is from the foyer of the Museum of London, on the Barbican estate. The MoL is one of my favourite places in the city, ever since I first went there in the early 80s on a school trip from Suffolk. We combined the museum with a look at the brand new Barbican Centre next door. My classmates, who would have been about twelve, soon discovered that if you rubbed your shoes a few times on the Barbican’s fuzzy carpeted staircases, and then used your finger to touch a metal bannister, or better still the face of a fellow child, you could produce a large and slightly painful spark of static. This design fault, much like the Wobbly Bridge opposite the Tate Modern, has since been fixed by those in charge, but I suspect it lives on in the memories of bored children.  

Moving into the year 2020 invites reflections on the decade just gone. I spent most of it returning to education at Birkbeck, University of London. The original plan was to just get a degree, mainly out of sheer curiosity, as I’d never taken one at the traditional age. When I found out I was good at the subject, being English literature, and indeed was good enough to be awarded grants to pay the fees, I stayed on to do an MA, and then a PhD. I ended 2019 as the recipient of a full maintenance grant, something that I thought only happened to other people – the success rate is one in five.

The stipend is set at the Living Wage, which may not be many people’s idea of material success in one’s 40s: I still have to live in a rented room in a shared house. But to be paid a full-time income for something I enjoy is something that I’ve not had since the mid-90s, when I had a major label record deal. I am grateful. In 2020, I hope to pay this good fortune forward: to produce work of use to others, to pass on advice and give talks, and, above all, to show that if a weirdo like me can find a role in the current world, anything really is possible. Here’s to Weirdo Visibility.

And yes, I am in the process of updating my diary.

**
This online diary was begun in 1997. It is thought to be the longest running of its kind. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or algorithms or clickbait. It depends entirely on donations by readers to keep it going. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Tags: ,
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Mr Edwards Mans Up

Monday 24 June 2019. Working slowly on the third chapter of the thesis. It is currently like walking in mud. To stretch the analogy further, one fears either becoming stuck for good or that one’s shoes will come off, leaving our hero looking foolish. Well, why stop now?

This evening I go to the Birkbeck arts department in Gordon Square and attend my Graduate Monitoring Interview for the second year of the PhD. This is an annual check-up with a tutor who is not your supervisor. You can discuss any problems that may have emerged over the past school year, which includes any difficulties with one’s supervisors.

Supervisors often get a bad press, the stereotype often being that they have flings with their students. Even the hip Netflix series Russian Doll continues this rather tired tradition. I’ve never heard of any such goings-on at Birkbeck, though perhaps the less traditional set-up of evening classes and mature students makes that possibility less likely. In real life, the student’s concern is not so much that a supervisor might be too hands-on, but that they’re not hands-on enough. One hears horror stories of supervisors failing to reply to emails for months on end, or of them being too busy for even the briefest meeting, or of them forgetting that their students even exist. In this respect, I have been lucky, as so far mine have been perfectly responsive. The problems I have had are entirely my own fault: wobbles of doubt, worries over my abilities, bouts of procrastination. 

So that’s what we discuss tonight. The tutor I have for this meeting, Dr Owen, suggests a useful motto: ‘write ugly words first’. Don’t worry about the quality of the first draft. Just hit the word count. Only afterwards, during the editing stage, are you allowed to turn it into The Great Gatsby. This may be an obvious lesson, but I still have problems learning it.

**

Thursday 27 June 2019. I give a tour of Birkbeck for my friend Sonja T and her daughter Daisy. Daisy is about 18, and is keen to do a degree. She’s apprehensive of the competitive side of being among her own generation, so the mixed-age aspect of Birkbeck appeals. Indeed, the class discussions are much more interesting as a result: glimpses of different domestic situations, of people with different daytime jobs, of people who’ve already had long lives and are now topping up their intellect, and of younger people who can be surprising with their choices of favourite texts. Brideshead Revisited was one such book on my BA course: despite its snobbishness and sentimentality, the younger students, including girls of ethnic and religious minorities, could not get enough of it. It was the character of Sebastian Flyte they liked: for all his wealth and privilege he is still a troubled young person, struggling with sexuality, family and faith. No shortage of that in the world, whatever the background. 

I also remain a fan of the 1980s TV adaptation, the influence of which could be seen in an episode of Killing Eve recently. When Villanelle turns up in Oxford, she dresses in what she imagines is an Oxford boy look: light shirt, brown slacks and a cream tie, with a cricket jumper knotted over her shoulders. According to the costume designer, this was a deliberate nod to Anthony Andrews as Sebastian in the TV Brideshead.

**

Friday 28 June 2019: I have a rule on not going to any festivals unless I am invited to appear. It rubs in my own sense of failure otherwise.

**

Saturday 29 June 2019. I read Bret Easton Ellis’s White, his new collection of essays. I’d been enjoying his podcasts, with his soft-spoken monologues railing against the world. So I was interested to see how he would render them into prose. Sadly the result on the page is a shapeless rant lacking any sense of cohesion. It doesn’t help when he admits a tendency to go on Twitter in the middle of the night fuelled by ‘a mixture of insomnia and tequila’. That says it all. To update Capote, that’s not writing, that’s tweeting. 

Still, there’s something in his theory that the hyper 1980s world of his novel American Psycho has come to pass on today’s social media, with the valorising of ‘likes’ and dislikes’ and the posting of photographs of one’s restaurant meals.

**

The Women’s Football World Cup has becoming immensely popular this year. I don’t know much about football, but I like Megan Rapinoe’s hair.

**

Saturday 6 July 2019. I see Yesterday at the Everyman cinema in King’s Cross. This turns out to be in the rather soulless new buildings to the north of the Granary Square development. The film has a bizarre premise about a struggling singer-songwriter waking up in a world where the Beatles never existed, except in his memory. So he goes about becoming a pop star by passing off their songs as his own. Unlike Groundhog Day, the magical conceit isn’t properly connected to the love story, so the latter feels added to pad out the film. However, the lead actor Himesh Patel’s rendition of ‘In My Life’ – simple and sincere – quite takes me by surprise, and I’m in floods of tears when he does it.

**

Sunday 7 July 2019. The day after Pride, Holborn tube platform is covered in little silver gas canisters, as well as the discarded box they came in. This reveals that the objects are manufactured as ‘cream chargers’, intended to go in dispensers of whipped cream. Not here, though. The gas, nitrous oxide, can be sniffed (once decanted into a balloon) to produce a legal high. But not a harmless one: there’s reports of the things causing permanent nerve damage, breathing problems, and even death from asphyxiation. I’m more grumpy about the litter aspect. Knock yourself out, just be tidy when you do it.

Nitrous oxide is better known as laughing gas. With the clown-like Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the idea of his Britain being one where the drug of choice is laughing gas might read as a corny political metaphor. That’s the trouble with reality. It’s so badly written.

**

Monday 8 July 2019. Going in through the barriers at Dalston Junction tube station, a woman going the other way calls out my name. This turns out to be Suzy Woods, with whom I was at Great Cornard Upper School, Suffolk in 1989, last seen briefly at a Spearmint gig in Brighton circa 1999. Suzy has two hulking teenage boys in tow. ‘These are my sons’.

**

Tuesday 9 July 2019. The strangest catcall in my life – which for me is saying something. An grey-haired, red-faced man passing me in Covent Garden today: ‘You’re not in France, you’re in Britain!’. I am wearing my usual cream linen suit and tie. Still, à chacun son goût.

It’s since occurred to me that he might be one of the slightly crazed pro-Brexit protestors that are currently a common sight in central London, often walking to or from the protests at Downing Street and Parliament. The Pro-Brexit lot are usually found installed next to an equally passionate group of anti-Brexit protestors, kept apart by a few bored-looking police officers. I think of Quentin Crisp’s quote from the late 1970s: ‘protest has become a game any number can play’. I also keep thinking of that phrase in Decline and Fall, used for the Bullingdon Club: ‘confused roaring’.  That rather sums up what’s going on in Britain now: a huge amount of confused roaring.

**

Weds 10 July 2019. Last week of summer term, and my last supervisory meeting of the academic year. I’ve agreed to crank out at least 1000 words a week from July 22 onwards, after a proper break.

**

Friday 12 July. To the Rio for The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy. It’s entertaining at first, but when the characters start making comments about being in a film, my patience evaporates. Blazing Saddles or Airplane might be able to do such a thing, but this film isn’t in the same league. It’s one big indulgent shrug. Not awful, just inert (there’s a comment for the poster).

**

Saturday 13 July 2019. Another auteur horror film at the Rio: Midsommar. Unlike The Dead Don’t Die, the aesthetic in this case cares about its viewers. It slowly pulls one into a hyper-sunny world, about a sinister pagan community in rural Sweden. As the film goes on, the flowers pulsate with CGI irises, and the film’s own colours become as bleached as the linen frocks. There’s an upsetting moment of two of violence, which has a couple of people at the Rio walking out (I’ve heard some have even fainted), and which is arguably unnecessary. A further criticism is that the debt to The Wicker Man prevents the film from being entirely original. But Midsommar’s confidence in its own vision is spellbinding. After it’s over I have to take time to adjust to the normal world, as I did with The Neon Demon. This is the highest compliment one can pay: a film that can shift reality.  

**

Sunday 14 July 2019. I read Fabulosa! by Paul Baker, a new book on Polari, the historical gay slang. Baker’s other two books on the subject came out a while ago; I’ve read those too. One is an academic linguistic study, the other a straightforward dictionary, beefed up with more general gay slang. I was once going to write a book on the subject myself. One of the reasons I didn’t is that, as Baker proved, there’s not quite enough on the topic to fill a whole book on its own. Polari makes for a good magazine article, or a few pages in a book on gay history, but that’s about it. Where it does come in handy is when it’s used as a way in to the wider story of homosexual social life during times of criminalisation. This is what Baker focuses on with this new book, adding his own life story into the mix.

I’m especially fascinated by a section on a late 1990s debate in the pages of Boyz, the free magazine in gay bars (in which I once appeared, though not as one of the nude pin-ups). In this debate, the magazine polled its readers for their views on reviving Polari, and by extension on camp in general. There’s evidence for an anti-camp attitude among gay men from at least as early as the 1930s; it’s also in Angus Wilson’s novels of the 1950s, with the rise of straight-acting ‘golden spivs’, not unlike the Kray twins. In the 1990s the surge in interest in indie rock gave rise to gay indie nights in London like Popstarz and Club V. One consequence was letters to Boyz like those in Baker’s book, which railed against gay men for listening to Kylie Minogue.

Why does camp persist now? Why are there TV programmes about drag queens in 2019? My answer would be because there’s still a sense of rules about what ‘normal’ looks like. A rainbow flag on a town hall may say ‘we are fine with LGBT people’, but by implication it also says ‘LGBT people are not the “we”’. Camp responds to the idea that there’s still a ‘normal’, and has fun in the process. As Judith Butler puts it, camp is ‘working the trap’. The only thing that would really make camp die out would be a world in which everyone was exactly the same.

**.

Monday 15 July. To the Rio for a third horror film with an arty aesthetic. This time, In Fabric. I find Peter Strickland’s faux-1970s stylings impressive, but am not convinced they sustain a whole film. As with The Dead Don’t Die,there’s a detached indifference that tests one’s patience. I’m glad these films exist and get made – they are, after all, art rather than commerce – but I prefer Midsommar’s more immersive approach.

**

Weds 17 July 2019. Trying to calm myself with the thought of Boris PM with the phrase ‘interesting times’. Either that or the end of Planet of the Apes.

**

Thursday 18 July 2019. Vita & Virginia at the Empire Haymarket. Mrs Woolf is played by the towering Elizabeth Debicki. I’m reminded of the line in Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On about Woolf being proud of winning the Evening Standard Award for the Tallest Woman Writer of 1927, ‘an award she took by a neck from Elizabeth Bowen’.

Also today: the Kiss My Genders exhibition at the Hayward. Lots of portraits of gender-bending figures, some of which, like Luciano Castelli’s androgyne in sparkling gold, seem very up-to-date, but turn out to be from the 1970s.

Friday 19 July 2019. To Knole mansion on a whim, inspired by seeing the house in Vita & Virginia the day before. This takes a mere 23 mins on the train from London Bridge to Sevenoaks, in Kent. Then one has to walk (or get a taxi) from the north of Sevenoaks, through the town, to get to Knole on the southern side. The rooftop views are startling: straight out of Orlando, with the deer in the grounds and the countryside going back for miles all around. The gatehouse has been converted into a sub-museum of its own, recreating the 1920s rooms of Eddy Sackville-West, the gay cousin who inherited Knole in place of Vita, even though she grew up as a child there. As Orlando satirises, she was disinherited purely by being female. A letter from Vita is quoted on a panel, on what she thought Eddy had done to Knole: ‘It made me cross; it was all so decadent, theatrical, and cheap. And Eddy himself mincing in black velvet. I don’t object to homosexuality, but I do hate decadence.’ It takes me a minute to realise that Vita, no stranger to same-sex love herself, used the word ‘homosexuality’ to mean men only.

There are signs in the grounds at Knole asking visitors people not to pet the fawns, ‘as this confuses their mothers’. I’d have thought mothers being confused by their offspring was an occupational hazard. Particularly in the case of the sort of people who lived at Knole.

The café at the house is so busy that I walk back into Sevenoaks to get something to eat (fish and chips at the Chequers pub, the staff kind and charming).

**

I read Normal People by Sally Rooney, the biggest-selling literary novel of the moment. There’s a story in the news that the most played song on UK radio since 2000 is ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol.  Normal People is the literary equivalent. It’s tasteful, competent, well-crafted, and able to appeal to a huge amount of people. It seems designed not to put anyone off. And that rather puts me off.  

The main idea of this novel – checking in with an everyman-ish couple over a period of years – rather recalls One Day by David Nicholls, another massive-seller, except with the quotation marks taken out. There’s no spikiness or oddness. For me, it’s too… normal. 

**

Tuesday 23 July 2019. Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister. Reality has officially eaten itself. It seems that there is no amount of gaffes, ineptitude and misconduct that can stop him. In giving up his journalism to be PM, Mr J has had to take a substantial pay cut. That says it all.

Perhaps Brexit really is the last gasp of the old ways. The photos of Boris meeting the Queen show him absolutely in his element – though according to the Sunday Times even the Queen has apparently voiced her concerns. Still, in a culture of ‘confused roaring’, of laughing gas canisters, of a babyish obsession with colourful characters, who else is there?

**

Thursday 25 July 2019. A ludicrously hot day in London: 37 degrees. I decide against braving the tube, and instead work at home, followed by seeing Varda By Agnes in the air-conditioned Rio basement. Still feel so lucky to have a cinema on my doorstep.

**

Saturday 27 July 2019. Only You at the Rio. A low budget British drama about a couple’s relationship, and how they try for a baby against the odds. Despite the gritty realism, I can only see the couple as a couple of actors. Still, the IVF injections seem real enough – and very unpleasant. I really had no idea that women put themselves through such ordeals. In the educational respect, at least, the film is a success.

**

Wednesdays 31 July 2019. I finally get around to reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936). Quite a wry introduction by Jeanette Winterson, saying that the book is now mainly read by students. What really interests me is the story of TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and others championing the book while trying to play down its camper, gayer aspects. This was not so much out of homophobia as the desire to get Nightwood taken as seriously as The Waste Land. Which is where my research comes in: campness as thought to be incompatible with serious art, because of the element of humour. Or rather, queer humour, and so the wrong kind. 

**

Thursday 1 August 2019. A book event at Burley Fisher Books: Savannah Knoop, Lee Relvas, Linda Stupart and Isabel Waidner. There’s a volatile, disruptive, older woman in the audience with a loud voice and wild, staring eyes, whom I’d seen shouting at passers-by on the Kingsland Road earlier. I assume she hasn’t come for a free literary event so much as just wandered into the bookshop off the street. But perhaps I am wrong. At the event she’s given the benefit of the doubt by the staff, and is provided with a seat, albeit with much ‘shush!’-ing when she occasionally shouts over a speaker. Linda S sits down to talk with the woman afterwards, which makes me feel guilty for tending to avoid such people pre-emptively, fearing as I do sudden violence. I suppose I also think, ‘one of us has to be mentally stable here, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be me’.

Roz K, Jonathan N, Laura B also here. Savannah Knoop reads a piece on their experiences in a gym. With their non-binary pronouns and self-designed clothes, a mixture of Dickensian rags, Alice skirts, and lycra, Knoop is a good example of a gender-neutral dandy.

**

Saturday 3 August 2019. To the Rio for a screening of JT Leroy, the dramatization of Girl Boy Girl, Savannah Knoop’s memoir. There’s a nice parallel here with Vita & Virginia. Both films have scenes in which a woman writer gets a camera and takes photos of a (rather wary) androgynous friend, in order to represent a fictional character. Just as Virginia Woolf used Vita Sackville-West as Orlando, Laura Albert used Savannah Knoop as JT LeRoy. In JT LeRoy, though, Savannah hints at the more exploitative aspects of the arrangement, yet still tries to be sympathetic to Ms Albert’s need for artistic ventriloquism.    

By way of balance, I also watch The Cult of JT Leroy on Amazon Video, a more investigative documentary in which Laura Albert is called everything from ‘predatory’ to ‘ill’ to ‘evil’ to ‘genius’. What with Author, the documentary that presents Albert’s own take, it’s fascinating that there’s now at least three films telling exactly the same story from different sides. One can imagine a Borges-like situation in which every possible real life narrative, however mundane, is turned into an infinite number of documentaries and dramatisations, each one edited to represent every possible take. There is no such thing as the truth, only a forking path.    

**

Monday 5 August 2019. I read an interview in the Guardian with Noel Gallagher. Typically the focus is less on music as it is on celebrity gossip, as in his broken relationship with his brother Liam. He calls Liam’s solo music ‘unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people’. This is probably fair, but in the same interview he admits to never having heard of gender fluidity: ‘What’s that? I know what gender I am – Mancunian’. It’s probably too much to expect Noel Gallagher to be au courant with the theories of Judith Butler, but if he thinks himself to be more ‘sophisticated’ than his brother, a little more curiosity about the world is surely in order.  Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a good (and short) introduction to the subject of gender fluidity, and one which other rock stars have manage to endorse, namely Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein. So there’s no excuse. I used to enjoy Mr Gallagher’s music, and indeed his interviews, but now I worry when I see intelligent people making jokes about being ignorant. If the legacy of Britpop means laddish incuriosity as something to aspire to, then speed its death.

Still, this all says rather more about me than Noel G. I’m less curious these days about rock music and more curious about books, so that’s a kind of ignorance on my part. I feel I have to be epicene to be believed.

**

Thursday 8 August 2019. Today I find myself delving into the Terry Pratchett archive at Senate House Library, by way of a diversion from my own research. I’m working in the library anyway, and stumble upon the Pratchett items as part of the integrated catalogue. One item intrigues me, so I call it up to take a look. It’s a printed manual for a 1991 computer training course, ‘Introduction to Word For Windows 3.1’.  The manual uses licensed extracts from Good Omens, the 1990 fantasy novel written by Pratchett with Neil Gaiman (and lately adapted for TV).

In the manual, the extracts are presented as raw text with which to teach the correction of typos, play with fonts and paragraph breaks, and so on. Quite why the manual used a copyrighted novel rather than one from the public domain (like Dickens), I don’t know. But the screenshots of pre-Web computer programs fascinates me: so inelegant in their two-colour blockiness. And those floppy disks and diskettes to save the files upon: cutting-edge materials then, now obsolete and difficult to access. This 1991 manual, however, printed on paper, has long outlived the software it was designed to serve. Such manuals are maps of lost worlds.

**

Friday 9 August 2019. A cat-call from three crisp-munching teen boys as I turn a corner in Bloomsbury: ‘Look at THIS c—.’ It could have been worse.

Once again, I think to myself: ‘Still got it!’ (to be sung to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’).

**

At Birkbeck’s main building in Torrington Square, one of the men’s toilets has been refurbished and renamed on the door as ‘gender neutral’. Inside, the urinals have gone. The four stalls now have walls and doors running from ceiling to floor. Inside each stall is a bin for sanitary towels, plus an advert for Birkbeck’s counselling service aimed specifically at men. According to the advert, some men might feel that they cannot easily talk about their mental health problems, because they might be told to ‘man up’ and ‘grow a pair’, in the parlance of today. Recently, someone got out a marker pen and scrawled over one of these adverts with the words ‘MAN THE F— UP’.

I wonder if this commentator realises that the phrase they used already appears on the advert underneath, thus justifying its existence in the first place. And what course is this graffiti writer doing, anyway? An MA in self-defeating irony? I wish I could meet this person, if only to tell them that if being unkind and unintelligent is their idea of manliness, then they need to man the f— down.

**
This online diary was begun in 1997. It is thought to be the longest running of its kind. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or algorithms or clickbait. It depends entirely on donations by readers to keep it going. Thank you!

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The Late Legitimisation of Mr Edwards

Thursday 11th April. Some happy news. I am waiting for a train en route to a book event in Peckham (Isabel Waidner talking with Jennifer Hodgson) when I check my emails. I may have resisted the heroin lure of the smartphone but I do enjoy the methadone substitute of an iPod Touch, which can access wireless internet.

One email is from CHASE, the government organisation to whom I’d applied for PhD funding a couple of months ago. Before opening the mail I pause and brace myself for rejection. This application was, after all, my third and final attempt. The rules forbid any more.

This time, though, I am told I was successful.

From October the government will pay me the minimum wage in order to work on my thesis full-time. There is also the likelihood of additional expenses for research trips.

This is a significant event for me, mentally as much as financially. It is the first time in twenty years that I’ve bagged a full time job that I want to do, as opposed to not mind too much. The last time was when I had a major label record deal in the mid 1990s.  Now I will be paid to read and write what I want to read and write. My project has been deemed, by a group of professionals who do not know me personally, to be of use to the real world.

I can confidently pre-empt accusations of boastfulness over this by indicating the money: a minimum wage in one’s late forties, even for doing something agreeable, is no popular index of success. My accommodation still cannot advance beyond the level of the rented room. But perhaps this new stipend, once it kicks in from October, will give me the focus and energy to undertake more paid work, such as journalism and talks. More things now seem possible. I have work to do, and works to do.

**

Friday 12 April 2019. A visit to the British Library imbues one with the feeling that everyone is a student, a writer or a researcher, and no other life exists. The public areas are so crowded, even just the benches around the walls. A young man with a laptop hovers by me when he notices I’m preparing to get up and leave, so he can grab my space. This is paradise of a kind. By which I mean it’s too popular and there’s hardly any room.

Meanwhile, a brand new UCL student building has opened nearby in Gordon Street, next to the Bloomsbury Theatre, with 1000 desks. I think of the TV documentary from the 1970s in which Kenneth Williams laments the rise of university buildings in the Bloomsbury area. Perhaps this would upset him even more. It cheers me, though, as I like the way Bloomsbury manages to be a university campus without the campus, lacking the detachment one feels with the more obvious universities, from Oxford to UEA.  There may be an ivory tower – Senate House Library – but it’s as much a part of the city as its next-door neighbour, the British Museum. For Birkbeck students, this aspect is particularly appropriate. Mature students have spent some time in the wider world already. To study on a more isolated campus might be like moving into a dormitory: fine for the young, but awkward for a forty-seven-year-old.

One now hears the word ‘campus’ used for the headquarters of tech companies like Google. It’s a kind of university envy by corporations, who even dub their training set-ups as ‘academies’. While this is reasonable for a youthful workforce, one wonders if older workers, if any are allowed at Google, are required to act like students too. In which case, in my funny child-like way, perhaps I am more a sign of the times that I thought.

Google has meant that everyone is a student researcher now. Even student researchers. And yet the majority of writers still look so ordinary and non-descript. Given the way I look I have a vested interest in this aspect, obviously; a literally vested interest.

**

Sunday 14 April 2019. To the sun-kissed paintings of Sorolla at the National Gallery, then the Nitty Gritty club night at the Constitution in Camden (with Debbie Smith DJ-ing), which is also my landlady K’s birthday bash. My previous unease at group events is now diminished: if nothing else, the funding means I can answer the dreaded question ‘and what do you do?’

**

Tuesday 16 April 2019. A news story in the Times: ‘Hundreds of students with the worst A levels are going on to get first-class degrees each year, fuelling fears of grade inflation at universities’. One explanation which escapes the Times is the concept of change. Birkbeck responds on Twitter in this spirit: ‘We make admissions based on students’ future potential, not just their past attainment.’

I add my voice to confirm this, summarising my last decade in a single tweet: ‘Birkbeck admitted me for a BA despite my lack of A-Levels (had a crisis at 17). Got the BA, stayed on for an MA, now doing a fully-funded PhD, all at Birkbeck. Still no A levels.’

A little later Joan Bakewell quotes my tweet, adding: ‘As Birkbeck’s President I’m proud of the chances we give people and congratulate Dickon on his success’.

I’m not sure of the correct way to address the Baroness, though I find an article where she likes people to call her by her first name. So I tweet back: ‘Thanks Joan!’

**

Friday 19 April 2019. Rather aptly, I spend the morning of Good Friday in an act of self-sacrifice. I’m using the sink in the bathroom when a pool of water creeps onto my toes from the cupboard below the sink. I crouch down to open the cupboard doors and immediately identify the source of this impromptu Nile: one of the joints in the sink ‘s outlet pipe is leaking, so it’s probably a blockage. As my landlady is away, and I don’t fancy calling out a professional on a bank holiday weekend (the only time when these things happen), I decide to have a go at tackling the issue myself. I unscrew the u-bend section of the pipe, take it out, and then clean it out in the bath using the shower hose. Lumps of awfulness emerge to a satisfying relish: dark compounds of hair, mini-fatbergs and what the characters in Withnail and I would describe simply as ‘matter’. I replace the pipe and use a plunger on the sink for good measure. This fixes the problem.

My joy over this comes not so much from the feeling of making things better as it does from the relief that I haven’t made things worse.

**

Monday 29 April 2019. I submit my revised Chapter Two to my supervisors.

 **

Thursday 2 May 2019. To the Curzon cinema in Aldgate to meet Shanthi S. The area is highly gentrified: clean and pristine new blocks of flats, probably hugely expensive, and with the usual feeling that no one actually lives here. We miss the film but end up having a pleasant evening at local bars like The Pride Of Spitalfields off Brick Lane, one of those older pubs which still manage to exist. The pub’s cat, Lenny, comes to sit next to me. Shanthi takes a photo, which I tentatively share on my Instagram account.

**

Friday 3 May 2019. I read Jenny Turner’s article in the LRB on the Mark Fisher anthology, K-Punk.At one point she suddenly pulls off a haughty flourish regarding Fisher’s favourite music: ‘I’ve always made a point of not being impressed by Joy Division or New Order’. It’s the choice of words, rather than simply ‘I’ve never liked’. Indeed, much as I admire Mark Fisher and Joy Division myself, neither were much at home to camp. Though they did deal in a certain type of masculine sentiment, which Ms Turner appreciates.  

My credo, if I have one at all, is that art can be witty, and wit can be art. Hence my interest in camp modernism, which goes back to naming my first band in 1992 after Woolf’s Orlando. In the same way, I never thought it incompatible to be a fan of the band the Field Mice, along with Sondheim musicals, the Smiths, Stock Aitken Waterman and Take That, all at once without any tiresome claims to irony. With unlikely intersections comes new space, and new freedom.

**

Tuesday 7 May 2019: To the Odeon Tottenham Court Road with Jon S to see Avengers: Endgame. I go mainly because the previous Avengers film ended on a cliffhanger, and I’m admittedly curious to see how the superheroes cheat death. The answer is they cheat.

On the way out, the other cinemagoers are discussing which of the preceding films they managed to see: ‘I missed Iron Man 2 but I did see Thor 6: Hard Rock Café.’ This is the triumph of the series: to blend a brand with a mythos, while allowing each film to make sense on its own terms. More or less. It will be interesting to see if superhero films continue to dominate cinemas; this is surely their peak moment.

**

This week sees the Met Gala in New York, as in the glitzy launch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition. This year’s theme is camp, with reference to the Sontag essay, hence my interest from afar. The BBC News site initially refers to the author of ‘Notes on Camp’ as ‘photographer Susan Sontag’. The coverage of the Gala is nearly eclipsed by the hyperbolic coverage of the Royal Baby, which itself is a camp moment.

Many of the looks on the red carpet, such as Harry Styles’s lacey catsuit, would not look out of place on the mid-1990s Romo scene. Or indeed, at Kash Point in the mid 2000s. Vogue magazine has called Mr Styles ‘the King of Camp’. This is debatable, though does have a certain Caravaggio-esque look to him.

**

Weds 8 May 2019. To the ICA for their Kathy Acker exhibition. Some of the late Acker’s books are on display in glass cabinets, including her copy of – what else? – Woolf’s Orlando. Was Kathy Acker camp? She had her moments, such as the poem that goes ‘Dear Susan Sontag, Please Can You Make Me Famous?’

**

Thursday 9 May 2019. I like to think zookeepers regularly say to each other ‘we need to talk about the elephant in the room’, and that the joke never gets old.

**

Saturday 11 May 2019. Much of the news is now based on journalists simply scouring Twitter and helping themselves to other people’s words. It’s now quite common to see people sacked from their jobs for something they idly typed on Twitter years ago. The format lends itself so easily to the removal of context, that it is perilous to use it for anything other than the blandest of statements. The First Law of Twitter: if a tweet can be taken the wrong way, it will be.

**

Sunday 12 May 2019.To the Rio for Cleo From 5 To 7 (1961), directed by Agnes Varda. I’d never seen it before; it’s mesmerising. Though it’s not shot in one take, as the more recent Victoria was in Madrid, there’s a magical sense of real time unfolding in a city, and that this is a liberating idea rather than a limitation. There’s currently a vogue for nature writing, and for narratives of going to the countryside to be healed, but despite sharing my name with the boy in The Secret Garden I’m rather on the side of finding answers in the city.

**

Saturday 18th May 2019. I’m walking along a street in Hoxton. As I pass a man mutters ‘freak’ at me. I used to get upset about this, but my reaction now can only be: ‘Still got it!’

**

Tuesday 21 May 2019. There really should be some sort of HGV test for backpack wearers. Despite the ability of human beings to access whole centuries of culture from a small flat oblong, many of them still need to carry yet more stuff on their back as well. Twice today on crowded tube carriages I am nearly hit in the face with the things, their owners oblivious. A backpack wearer is a long vehicle, but it’s hard to get to their face to tell them. Would Truman Capote wear a backpack in the city? No. There’s no excuse.

**

To Waterstones Gower Street for a book event. The subject is ostensibly Woolf’s Orlando, but the focus is really on Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl, a new novel by the American writer Andrea Lawlor, which I’ve just enjoyed. Paul is set in the indie band culture of America in the early 1990s, and features a shapeshifting queer protagonist who makes his own music fanzine. The publishers have sent out copies of the book with a promotional fake fanzine, Polydoris Perversity. I’ve managed to get hold of one. The publishers have done their homework (presumably with the author in consultation): the fanzine looks entirely authentic to me. I remember buying and making such zines myself. It’s A5 sized, photocopied and stapled, and features text that’s been cut and pasted, in the days when the phrase meant real scissors and real paste (or at least Pritt Stick). At the back of the zine there’s a tracklisting of a home-made compilation tape – ‘mixtape’ was always a purely American term. Anachronistically, there’s a Spotify code for the playlist. It works, too.

Lawlor is the same age as me, and I get a nostalgic thrill from this book, despite the American setting. It works as a vivid document of gay social history, along the same lines as Tales of The City and Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Indeed, Lawlor’s Paul and Hollinghurst’s Sparsholt Affair both reference Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ as a gay song. And as with Hollinghurst, Lawlor is fond of gay sex scenes, though there’s plenty of lesbian sex too, thanks to Paul’s ability to change sex at will. On top of the Orlando references there’s a touch of Brideshead Revisited,when a soft toy is named Aloysius. ‘Of course it is’ says another character, Robin, another androgyne, who in turn is based on the Russian princess in Orlando.

What Lawlor gets most of all, though, is the importance of iconography to identity:

 ‘Paul remembered seeing a picture of Patti Smith for the first time, that flash of recognition when he first came across the Mapplethorpe postcard at the gay bookstore in Binghamton, thinking that’s what he looked like on the inside, taping that postcard up in every room he’d lived in since.’ (p. 121)

**

Wednesday 22 May 2019. Another book event, this time at Burley Fisher in Haggerston. This is the launch of the Andrew Gallix anthology We’ll Never Have Paris. It’s so packed that I have to leave early just to be able to breathe. The Andrew Lawlor event was similarly popular, with an extra row of chairs added at the last minute.

This week also sees me fail to get into a couple of other book events, because they both sell out in advance. I wonder if something is going on. The way forward for writers, as with bands, would seem to be more live events, and more festivals.

**

Thursday 23 May 2019. The EU elections. I go to my local polling station, Colvestone Primary School near Ridley Road, and vote Green. Labour win in my borough, Hackney, while most of the country chooses Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Interesting times.

**

Friday 24 May 2019. I cram in three exhibitions: Beasts of London at the Museum of London, in which a plague bacterium is voiced by Brian Blessed. Then with Mum to Mary Quant at the V&A, in which I learn that Ms Quant’s fashion line was genuinely affordable by all. Then on to Manga at the British Museum in the evening. The manga show reveals the influence of Alice in Wonderland, which I didn’t know about, and selects three titles for its gay section: Poem of Wind & Trees (the men very feminine looking), My Brother’s Husband (the men very muscular and hairy), and What Did You Eat Yesterday, an unexpected tale of an middle-aged gay couple’s domestic life (the men very ordinary). There’s also a section on cosplay and conventions, with a set of garments for visitors to try on. I don’t join in, believing as I do that dandyism is already cosplay; the cosplay of the self.

**

Friday 31 May 2019. I read Jarett Kobek’s Only Americans Burn In Hell, an entertaining satirical novel which uses a lot of what’s now called autofiction, and manages to be very funny too. Very Tristram Shandy, in fact, with its mad, skittish digressions.Mr Kobek often apologises to the reader for being unable to write a particular scene, and makes a perfectly good point as to why: ‘I’m burnt out. Donald J Trump was elected to the Presidency of the United States! So there’s really no point. Stop hoping that books will save you.’

On corporate celebrations of diversity, he writes: ‘Native American women had a statistically better chance of being caricatured in a Google Doodle than they did of being hired into a leadership position at Google’

Steve Jobs, meanwhile, is glossed as ‘a psychopath who enslaved Chinese children and made them build electronic devices which allowed American liberals to write treatises on human rights’.

**

Saturday 1 June 2019. To the Tate Modern for the Dorothea Tanning show. Her first painting in her Late Surrealism style, from the 1940s, is a Dali-esque self-portrait amid infinite doors and strange creatures. It is titled Birthday, such was her sense of new life through art. But the exhibition reveals two further ‘births’. In the 1950s she changes to a more abstract technique, more Pollock than Dali. And then there’s a third style of soft sculptures run off her sewing machine. The centrepiece is an installation of a hotel room, where the furniture is turning into such sculptures, while further shapes burst through the wallpaper.

Tanning worked until her death at 101. I think of Leonora Carrington’s similarly long life, and while talking to Mum on the phone I wonder if there’s a connection between surrealism and longevity. Mum suggests that it might be because such women had to be tough in the first place to tout their art in such a male field.

**

Monday 3 June 2019. I see Booksmart at the Rio, a high school comedy about two bookish teenage girls having a late try at being party animals. It’s uproariously funny. There’s a couple of boy characters – drama queens in every sense – who threaten to steal the film from the girls.

**

Thursday 13 June 2019. I help to organise a student conference at Birkbeck, Work in Progress. The staff had picked me, along with three other 2nd years (Katie Stone, Matt Martin, Helena Esser), because they knew I had experience of organising club nights. In the weeks leading up to the event, the process soaks up a lot of time, and there’s some hitches with people cancelling, but it’s mostly a smooth running affair. Katie Stone live-tweets a lot of the day, using the hashtag ‘#bbkwip’.

We host twelve speakers in all, including our keynote speaker Anthony Joseph, who discusses his novel Kitch, about the Trinidad calypso singer Lord Kitchener. I do some tech supervising, chair one of the panels, and chair the plenary summing-up session, which I learn is pronounced ‘plee-nary’, and not ‘plenn-ary’. My main mission is just to keep the event running to its schedule, with echoes of the joke about Mussolini.

**

Monday 17th June 2019. To the Rio with Shanthi to see Gloria Bell (£5). A subtle and nuanced tale of ageing people going on dates. Very little really happens, but at a time of shrillness and noise, quiet films can be a tonic. Julianne Moore’s character has to struggle with two pairs of glasses. This is a detail I recognise in my own life now, finding as I do that fiddling with specs is still preferable to working with varifocals.

I’ve also discovered that increased myopia helps stage fright, or anxiety about public speaking. All I have to do is take my distance glasses off, and the audience disappears. I believe Dusty Springfield used the same technique.

**

Tuesday 18 June 2019. I watch the last episode of Years and Years, the highlight of which is a speech by the grandmother about people buying into the more ridiculous type of politician: ‘I didn’t see all the clowns and monsters heading our way. Tumbling over each other, grinning. Dear God what a carnival.’

By coincidence, this piece of fiction is broadcast after a live debate between the five candidates for the next Prime Minister, all sitting on stools like some grotesque five-part harmony boy band. The favourite is Boris Johnson, now trying his best to be quiet and sensible. Close on his heels is the bland Jeremy Hunt, who has a record of forgetting things, from his wife’s nationality to his ownership of seven luxury flats. If Hunt wins, it will be because people want to forget about Boris Johnson. Rory Stewart seems the most reasonable of this gaggle, and seems to realise that if he is to succeed he needs to play up his clownishness. Which in fact, tonight he does, suddenly taking off his tie and slouching in his seat, his gauntness making him look like a character from Mervyn Peake. To borrow Sontag’s phrase about camp, we are in an age of Instant Character.

**

Thursday 20th June 2019. To Sudbury to meet Mum. Sudbury seems mostly unchanged from my teen years, though Great Cornard Upper School (where I spent 1985 to 1989) has been renamed Thomas Gainsborough School. When I was there there was no uniform, just a dress code favouring plain grey shirts and jumpers. This was deemed to be progressive and modern at the time. Not any more. Today in Sudbury I see pupils of TGS wearing a full traditional uniform: blazer, striped tie and even a crest, which must have been invented yesterday. I wonder at this paradox, a twenty-first century school choosing a style that seemed out of date in the 1980s. Perhaps one can blame Harry Potter.

Naming buildings simply after the area they are in is no longer enough. One thinks of Liverpool’s Speke Airport becoming John Lennon Airport. It seems difficult to imagine that Mr Lennon needs the extra publicity, so omnipresent are the Beatles. That said, Mum has told me of a child who asked who Paul McCartney was. ‘He’s a bit like Ed Sheeran’.

The painter Thomas Gainsborough already has a prominent statue in Sudbury marketplace, and there’s also the nearby Gainsborough House gallery, which we visit today. Now he has a large school too. Even the local train line, which I take today from Liverpool Street, changing at Marks Tey, is labelled the Gainsborough Line. My fellow Sudbury alumni really need to hurry up and produce some masterpieces, if only so the town has more names to choose from.

**
This online diary was begun in 1997. It is thought to be the longest running of its kind. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or algorithms or clickbait. It depends entirely on donations by readers to keep it going. Thank you!

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Unselfing

I find a couple of old photos of myself online, and rather like them. One (at poor resolution) is of myself singing back-up with Fosca’s Kate Dornan, while onstage with Bid’s group Scarlet’s Well, sometime in the mid-2000s. The venue is the Spitz in Spitalfields Market, London, now no longer there.

The other is from 2008, in my old room at Highgate. It’s taken by Jamie McLeod, capturing me in bedsit dandy mode. I rarely smoke cigarettes today.

Tuesday 5th February 2019. To the British Library to appear as part of a panel discussion hosted by Travis Elborough, Diaries – Lives and Times. The other guests are Simon Garfield, Virginia Ironside and Anita Sethi. The five of us are seated on a stage in an auditorium, in a separate building which, despite being physically part of the same gently utopian mass as the British Library itself, is accessed via a separate entrance in the courtyard. This event is accompanied by a live transcription on a screen, much like one has these days on TV news channels. Inevitably, ‘diary’ appears on the screen at least once as ‘diarrhoea’.

Mr G discusses his fat book of mid-century diaries, A Notable Woman. Ms Ironside’s anecdotes about Robert Maxwell at the Daily Mirror are pleasingly vicious: she says he used to enjoy firing staff in front of visitors, while giving tours of the Mirror offices. I like the title of one of her books about growing old: No! I Don’t Want To Join A Bookclub.

For my part, I mention that it’s the centenary of a cult diary, Journal of a Disappointed Man by the ailing WNP Barbellion. I also find myself demonstrating how diaries tend to leave things unsaid between the lines, sometimes unconsciously, and use my own as an example. A jokey entry from 1999 about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is now, I can see, an allusion to a boyfriend I was seeing at the time, who was a fan of the films. Back then, I remarked how there was a minor character in the film called Yarael Poof, and how I found that childishly amusing. And clearly I still do.

Afterwards for drinks at a pleasant pub nearby, the Skinners Arms, recommended by the British Library staff. I invite along Max, a young fan of my work, such as it is, who’s come up to London specifically to see me. They’re non-binary, even wearing a badge which states their pronouns as ‘they/them’. Since discovering me, they’ve sought out the Orlando and Fosca records, some of which were made before Max was born.

Being on a stage again after so long, and indeed being able to inspire young people again, rather buoys my sense of usefulness. My concern now is that I am still billed as a musician, even though I’ve not made music for ten years, being these days more interested in books and prose. Clearly I need to hurry up and get some books out of my own.

**

Wednesday 6 February 2019. I’m working on a new revision of my PhD funding proposal, allowed as I am to do so for a third and final time, after been turned down in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile I receive a rejection email from a conference in Princeton. The euphemism is ‘we are unable to find room for your paper’. I think I’d prefer ‘we didn’t care for it’, or even ‘it’s rubbish’; that would at least be more honest. There is no feedback attached to refusals from conferences, so exactly what I’ve done wrong, or not well enough, I’ll never know.

Still, as my supervisors remind me, I have a ready-made abstract to use for another time. And so, licking my bruises, I stagger on. I’m beginning to understand why so many academics throw in the towel and get proper jobs.

**

A useful note to all tutors and editors, from bitter experience. When giving feedback in which you tell the writer or student they ‘need to say more about X’, always follow with ‘you can afford to say LESS about Y’. Otherwise, you’ve plunged them into the terror of fathoming which bits can be cut to make room within the word count, at the risk of making the piece more skeletal rather than concise. No one wants that.

‘Kill your darlings’ is only a useful tip if it is clear which bits are the surplus darlings in question. For the writer, it’s often not clear. Better to offer Hobson’s choice rather than Sophie’s.

**

Saturday 9 February 2019. I do my first bit of peer reviewing, for my fellow PhD-er Katie S’s journal. This is for an essay by a non-English speaking student on the American activist and poet Wendy Trevino. The essay in question ticks the right boxes for the journal in terms of content, but the writer’s command of English grammar needs a fair amount of improvement. My problem is that my idea of good style is probably a step too far for many editors: I want all English prose to read like The Great Gatsby, even if it’s just the instructions for a microwave meal. But I also believe a certain amount of non-Englishness in the voice needs to be preserved, by way of national identity – which is the subject of the essay, after all. It’s not an easy task. Thankfully in this case I’m reviewing rather than editing, and am limited to making recommendations rather than hacking away with a red pen. I also end up buying the Trevino book, Cruel Fiction, so that’s surely a good thing on the part of the essay.

**

To the Barbican to see the film Can You Ever Forgive Me. Much has been made of Richard E Grant’s fine supporting performance, for which he was nominated for an Oscar; the lead performance by Melissa McCarthy is equally good. But I’m further delighted by a cameo by Justin Vivian Bond, whom I once saw in the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. Good to see the British comedy actress Dolly Wells, too, as a lonely book dealer. Her American accent is so perfect that it takes me a while to recognise her. 

**

15th February 2019. One effect of my late flowering education is to find myself using a pen to edit the articles in magazines.

**

23rd February 2019. To the British Library’s hidden auditorium again, this time to be in the audience. It’s an event to celebrate 40 years of the nearby bookshop Gay’s the Word. There’s a lot of lavender-coloured party balloons in the bar, a colour I prefer to the more typical rainbow flag; I agree with Hannah Gadsby that the latter is aesthetically ‘a bit busy’. Purple (and lavender, and mauve, and violet) is a more historical queer colour, dating back to the 1890s, which were sometimes called the Mauve Decade. Then there’s Firbank and his love of the colour, writing his novels in purple ink, and Brigid Brophy doing the same by way of tribute in the 1970s, the better to write her big mad book on Firbank, Prancing Novelist. Leila Kassir keeps me company, and points out how Uncle Monty in Withnail and I uses the colour as part of his antiquated gay lexicon: ‘He’s so mauve, we don’t know what he’s planning’.

Much of the event is, understandably, about gay books and gay writers. Neil McKenna recommends Angus Wilson’s No Laughing Matter, proving that Wilson is not quite as forgotten as I’d thought. The evening ends with readings by poets, including Richard Scott, whose collection Soho is, as they say, right up my street.

**

26th February 2019. I submit my application for funding. This time round the money has rather been dangled in front of me. Whereas previously I was simply told by email that I’d been declined, this time there’s a series of panels one has to please: first one for the Birkbeck English department, then one for the department’s parent ‘school’, being the School of Arts, then one for Birkbeck college overall. Now I’m up against about 170 other students from the London and South-East area, all of us competing for 56 scholarships.

I was given two further chances to revise my proposal, according to feedback from a couple of the panels. It feels like being nominated for an Oscar, then told you have to shoot parts of the film again, in order to give your performance more of a chance at winning.

What I find difficult is that this process is less about the work as it is about selling the work. It’s really PR, marketing, pitching. These are things I’ve always resented doing, despite my reputed vanity. It’s the same as a job interview, or writing a CV, arrogantly providing the answer to the question, ‘Why do you think you’re great?’ Deep down, I don’t think anyone should give me anything at all.

Still, I can’t pretend that being funded would not alter my mindset for the better. I hear back in late April.

**

28th February 2019. To Hackney’s Earth venue, two blocks away from my rented room in Dalston, off Stoke Newington High Street. Earth is a brand new arts venue, though the building is a former 1930s cinema, The Savoy, which became an ABC in the 1960s. I like the sense of layers of history, especially as the street outside cuts through in time to the first century AD. The Romans built the road to link London to York; the Saxons named it Earninga Straete – ‘Ermine Street’. Every day I step out onto this road and have a clear view south into the City, with the Gherkin in the distance.

All of which seems apt for the electronic recording artiste Gazelle Twin, given her demonic stage costume as part English jester, part football hooligan, with a red stocking mask, red and white tunic and tights, and a white baseball cap. ‘What is century is this?’ she sings in the opening track of Pastoral, her 2018 album about Englishness after Brexit. She performs that album tonight, and only that album, never breaking character. I realise that her look evokes the costumes of Leigh Bowery, particularly when he was in the ballet I am Curious Orange. Indeed, that ballet’s accompanying album by the Fall, I Am Kurious Oranj, has a track called ‘Jerusalem’, as does Pastoral. Mark E Smith left a gap in British music when he died; for me, Pastoral helps to fill it. 

**

Friday 1st March 2019. With Mum in town. We visit the ‘Unclaimed’ exhibition at the Barbican – an inspired look at aging and elders in Britain, presented as a lost property office. It’s now thought that half the current population could reach the age of a hundred. As Quentin Crisp put it when talking about being in his sixties, ‘medical science is so unkind’. Culture will have to change quite drastically: there’s now protests about literary awards which favour the young. ‘Emerging writers’ is preferred, instead of ‘young writers’.

**

Tuesday 5th March 2019. Read an excellent article in The Guardian by Emily Beater on dyspraxic students. Much of it rings true with me, especially having to read a sentence several times before the meaning sinks in, and how this affects self-confidence and career aspiration. It is still hard to convince people that dyspraxics are suitable for higher education, but the evidence proves that they can succeed and even win awards, if diagnosed and supported.   

**

Thursday 7th March 2019. A long stint in the Keynes Library at Gordon Square, starting with an in-department conference of papers by my fellow students, then finishing with a lecture by the visiting academic Zara Dinnen, on ‘userness’ in narratives. Her examples are, rather refreshingly, the plotlines of Batgirl comics. In a gritty 1990s incarnation, Batgirl became a wheelchair-bound computer hacker. More recently she was ‘rebooted’ as hip and wisecracking, with a memorable cover image of her taking a selfie, in full costume, in the mirror of a crowded women’s toilet. There’s so much that can be said about this single image: satire, gender, society, the gaze in comics and so on.

One of the students discusses her experience of organising a conference. When looking to hire guest speakers, she found something of a gender pay gap. All the male lecturers she approached quoted their usual fixed fee, even though they were aware this was a low-budget, student-run event. Whereas the female lecturers responded along the lines of, ‘How much can you afford?’ ‘Can you pay the Living Wage?’

**

Sunday 10th March 2019. A note to myself: Be more fearless. Be more tender. Be more kind.

This reminder is obvious, even glib. Yet without it a whole host of petty irritations and cruelties creep in to make a nest of the day.

**

Tuesday 12 March 2019. Ms May’s Brexit deal is kicked out of Parliament by 149 votes. I’ve definitely been rejected 149 times. Can I be Prime Minister?

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Wednesday 13th March 2019. To the Burley Fisher Bookshop for a talk by Isabel Waidner and Joanna Walsh. The world of contemporary experimental fiction, including autofiction, fascinates me more than ever, and these writers are among those producing the best of it today.

**

Thursday 14th March 2019. To the Stratford East Picturehouse, right next to the Stratford East Theatre Royal, with its floating Joan Littlewood statue. I see a screening of two documentaries on an LGBT theme. Poshida (2015) is about the compromised lives of gay and trans people in Pakistan, and mixes a style of mainstream news reportage with a cinematic aesthetic. There’s a lot of questions asked in its short length, alongside beautiful imagery of the Faisal Mosque and the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. The director is Faizan Fiaz, who is British-Pakistani and now trans-masculine, and who once played bass in my band Fosca. According to Faizan in the Q&A afterwards, all of the interviewees have stuck with their Muslim faith.

The other film, DES!RE (2017), is a black and white ‘jazz meditation’ on butch and trans-masculine people in Britain, directed by the dapper Campbell X. I spot Derek Jarman’s Dungeness cottage used as a backdrop at one point: a reminder that Jarman’s tradition of queer DIY filmmaking is still continuing and still needed.

The Q&A is more of a community gathering than a film discussion. Many of the audience speak up to thank the directors for simply making them feel seen. Indeed, the English translation of Poshida is ‘hidden’. These are still lives that are different from the default, and so still tend to be less acknowledged. As Campbell X says tonight, these films say: ‘We were here. They can’t erase us’.

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Tuesday 19th March. Blame the systems, not the humans.

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21st March 2019. ‘We can’t be ordinary now because there isn’t the time.’  – Angela Carter, ‘Fools Are My Theme’, from her essay collection Shaking a Leg.

**

Friday 22 March 2019. Something of a crisis. After spending a large amount of time and energy writing a review of Music & Camp, a new book of academic essays, the editor at the magazine isn’t happy and wants me to rewrite it. And this is meant to be my specialist subject.

After much agonising, I tell the editor I’d rather ‘spike’ the piece instead, as in cancel it altogether. They’re sympathetic, and fill the space in the magazine okay without me. The world continues to turn. In the streets around me people are marching with blue pro-EU flag, in the hope of revoking the Brexit process. Perhaps some of that same spirit has leaked into my thoughts over my article.

After a series of setbacks in recent months, this one completely derails me. I sink into a fug of depression, questioning my ability to do anything much at all. The depression is ontological rather than existential. There’s never any risk of self-harming, because when it happens it feels like there is no self to harm in the first place. It is more of a paralysis state: a complete alienation from human systems, including the systems of reading and writing.

I think one problem is that when one is immersed in a subject at a PhD level, it can be difficult to shift between that mode and the more detached ‘general readership’ mode for journalism. This is clearly a separate skill that needs learning, but I’m already struggling how to write a PhD as it is.

I wonder if I am simply not cut out to write journalism. Or, more likely, not cut out to do both the PhD and journalism at this stage. It feels schizophrenic, even fraudulent. Which one is the ‘real’ me? I don’t do impressions.

With both types of writing, I resent the second-guessing aspect, that scent of desperation always between the lines: ‘Please let me fit in with other PhDs / other journalists!’. But I’m really aware that I don’t easily fit in anywhere.

I’d been heading for this moment for some time. Every task, including this diary, has felt more and more difficult, and my working speed has become slower and slower. I have a fantasy of putting the universe on pause so I can just get my breath back.

What to do? I remind myself of my achievements in recent years: 1st class BA, distinction MA, three prizes. This is not vanity, this is trying not to crumple into a heap.

**

Monday 25th March 2019. To the BFI Southbank for one of the special events in Flare, the London LGBT film festival. Trans Creative at the Movies is a panel discussion comprising clips from films. The five people on the panel, all of whom identify as transgender, each pick a film which spoke to their trans-ness when they were growing up, or, as in the case of Faizan Fiaz, when they were reflecting on their identity more recently. Faizan’s choice is a Bollywood film from 2013, Ram-Leela, seen when they were looking at Bollywood films for the first time. Despite being Anglo-Pakistani, or possibly because, Faizan was uninterested in Bollywood while growing up.

The clip in question is a colourful dance number in a city street, led by Ranveer Singh, a muscular beauty in that pumped-up Love Island fashion. Faizan points out how it’s the dozens of male dancers around Singh who are more interesting, with their rather more achievable-looking torsos.

Of the other panellists, Jamie Hale’s choice is on a similar theme of men among men, Lawrence of Arabia. Zorian Clayton chooses Big, Kate O’Donnell chooses Gypsy, and La John Joseph goes for Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

I’ve now realised that, with the revelation that Quentin Crisp explicitly declared himself as transgender in his last months, The Naked Civil Servant can now technically be classified as a trans-related film. And indeed, the 1992 film of Orlando can now be said to have a trans actor in its cast. 

**

Wednesday 27th March 2019. I glance at the Brexit mess in the news. It feels as if the nation is in one massive BDSM relationship where no one can remember the safe-word.

**

Friday 29th March 2019. Brexit protestors of either stripe are currently a daily sight on the streets of London. On the Mall I walk past a man brandishing a mass-produced pro-Brexit banner: ‘NO DEAL? NO PROBLEM!’. Underneath this in smaller letters are the words ‘Brexit means Brexit’. He’s white, in his sixties, with a Panama hat, blazer and a striped tie. If it wasn’t for the banner, I’d have said he was on his way back from watching cricket.

**

To the BFI Southbank for another screening in the Flare festival. United We Fan is a documentary about the fans who organise campaigns when their favourite TV series is cancelled. The oldest examples here are the Star Trek Trimbles, a married couple, now in their eighties. They’re credited with a letter-writing campaign which led to the original Star Trek returning for a third series.

The film then moves to the 1980s pressure group, Viewers For Quality Television, which campaigned not only to save a number of programmes from cancellation, such as Cagney and Lacey, but became a kind of index of well-made programmes. This was a time when TV was still thought to be a low quality, disposable medium de facto. The film brings us up to date with a young lesbian supporter of the recent series Person of Interest, which had a same-sex relationship among its storylines. When the series returned thanks to her online campaigning, however, one of the gay characters was killed off. Thankfully, this fan didn’t take after Kathy Bates in Misery, whose response was to imprison and torture the writer in question. Nevertheless, the hurt felt by fans when this is happens is real enough. The Person of Interest fan responded by dropping her support of the show altogether. It was soon cancelled for good.

All of which begs questions not just about the changing role of the fan, from consumer to consultant, but also the role of the writer, from trying to gain an audience, to trying to keep them satisfied. The Person of Interest creator protests, quite reasonably, that a gay character can’t not be killed off just because they’re gay and have gay fans. A story has to go somewhere; that’s what makes it a story. What some fans want is really a static loop. I think of the Stevie Smith poem ‘To An American Publisher’:

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You liked it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.

But of course, fans already do this. They re-watch or re-read their favourites again and again, and still it’s not enough. It’s there in Sherlock Holmes, killed off halfway through the stories by Conan Doyle, then brought back by popular demand. It’s the same with music fans, with reunion tours, jukebox musicals, tribute bands, and now the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody, a manifestly bad film that exists to make fans of the music happy. Re-playing the original songs a thousand times is still not enough. Fans want more, as long as it’s more of the same.

I’ve just found myself watching all of the first series of Russian Doll again. Do I want a second series? Hard to say.

**

Sunday 31st March 2019. To the Rio with Jennifer H for Out of Blue, the new Carol Morley film. It’s steeped in woozy originality, secretive and strange. I feel I need to see it again to appreciate it. It’s one of those.

**

Wednesday 3rd April 2019. With Jon S to the Odeon Tottenham Court Road for Us, a horror-thriller by the man behind Get Out.There is a theme about America and oppressed selves, personified by sinister doppelgangers in red boiler suits. It’s tempting to ask questions about the logic of the plot, which, like the end of Get Out, dips jarringly into realism after what seems to be a lot of allegory.

There’s a final twist which forces the audience to rethink the meaning of everything that’s gone before. I’m not sure that’s fair on the audience, or indeed fair on the rest of Us. By that point the film has already delivered a rich parade of symbolism, striking visuals, thrills, terrors, and ideas. A plot twist undermines those achievements, as it forces the audience to make one reading only. Whereas an inscrutable film like Out of Blue may make demands on its viewers, but the bond of trust is never in question.

If Us becomes a classic, it will be because of everything in the film except the twist ending. The same, after all, became true about Citizen Kane.

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The Strange Risk of the Sarcastic Catcall

Monday 10th December 2018. One reason for carrying with this diary, or carrying on with writing at all, is the hope of being understood, if only by myself. I find my own existence more baffling than ever, and writing the diary is one way to stop myself going absolutely mad. Except I’m not even sure what madness means. Still, it wouldn’t do for me to feel normal. I can’t pull off ‘normal’ as a look.

**

Friday 18th December 2018. I’m reading a lot about Angus Wilson, partly in preparation for a discussion on the Backlisted podcast, but also because he relates to my ongoing interest in camp, in this case as a kind of literary style. But he was camp in his own persona too. He makes a cameo in Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth, where he’s described as ‘camp as a tent peg’. And McEwan should know: he was Wilson’s pupil at UEA.

Angus Wilson was known for dressing in linen suits, with flamboyant bow ties, colourful shirts, and a swept-back leonine mane of hair. He spoke in a rapid, verbose kind of nattering; intellectual, but with a hint of gossip, not unlike Ned Sherrin. Margaret Drabble’s biography notes how in his older, fleshier years Wilson joked about his close resemblance to the actress Margaret Rutherford.

From what I can tell, Wilson currently tends to be left out of discussions of post-war British literature. The degree course I did a couple of years ago preferred the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis (but not Martin), Philip Larkin, Colin McInnes, John Wyndham, Sam Selvon, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and John Fowles. I now can see how Drabble’s Ice Age, which depicts 1970s Britain through a Victorian realist style, owes a debt to Wilson. It’s also mentioned in The Clash song, London Calling.

Wilson’s books are currently only available via Faber Finds, the automated print-on-demand service. While better than nothing this does lack the sense of care one has with a proper reissue. It’s telling that the most recent proper edition is the New York Review of Books one for Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, from 2005. Sometimes it takes America to value Englishness.

The novels aside, Angus Wilson should be better known for at least four other things. First, there was his work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war – against Mussolini rather than Hitler. Despite his later work among the world of fiction, his choice of a book on Desert Island Discs was a Bletchley nod: ‘any volume on mathematical logic’.

Another achievement was his work in the late 1940s and early 50s as Deputy Superintendent at the British Museum Library, now the British Library. Wilson had to organise the replacement of thousands of books destroyed in the Blitz. The British Library now has a painting of him in the Humanities 1 Reading Room, right by the entrance.

Then there’s his co-founding, with Malcolm Bradbury, of creative writing as a British university subject, which happened at UEA around 1970. This is probably his greatest legacy, given the huge industry that creative writing is today. This particular fact was even included in the general knowledge round on an edition of Mastermind. 

Still, it’s the fourth achievement that really interests me: his campaigning for gay rights. In 1980 he became the first openly gay man to be given a knighthood, a mere thirteen years after the law was changed. That really can’t be underestimated. Even though he was at pains for Hemlock and After not to be called a gay book, or for himself to be called a gay author, he nevertheless went out of his way to help the cause. In 1985, during the height of AIDS paranoia, when the same government who had honoured him raided the Gay’s the Word bookshop, Wilson used his position to intervene. ‘It is intolerable’, he wrote, ‘that officials should have such wide-ranging powers of indiscriminate seizure of books. It is even more intolerable that those powers should be exercised’. The shop was acquitted.

If books do furnish a room, Angus Wilson’s books rather furnish second hand bookshops.  Today I’m browsing in Any Amount Of Books in Charing Cross Road, and have no problem finding some cheap Wilson paperbacks. The man at the till remarks on my choice: ‘Angus Wilson! I didn’t think anyone read him these days!’ He tells me that Wilson appears in a scene in ‘a recent novel’ which has a party at a gay bookshop. He can’t recall the name of the author, or the title of the book, but as the fictional shop is probably based on Gay’s The Word, he advises me to ask there.

So I walk to Gay’s the Word, twenty minutes away in Marchmont Street, where Uli and Jim confirm the book in question: it’s Philip Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz (2014). It is instances like these that show how bookshops can be better at providing information than Google, and better at providing a memorable shopping experience than Amazon.

The novel I’m talking about, Hemlock and After (1952), is mainly set in a fictional Hertfordshire village, Little Vernon. It’s probable that Wilson drew inspiration from Little Hadham, near Bishop’s Stortford, where he lived just after the war. The same village was later the home and inspiration for Fairport Convention, who immortalised the Angel Pub in their album Angel Delight.

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Wednesday 19th December 2018. It’s become something of a cliché for successful writers to say they read ‘all the books’ in their school library when they were growing up. At which I always think: except any books on humility.

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Thursday 20th December 2018. A rather silly article in the New Statesman, arguing that the role you were given in your primary school nativity play is connected to who you are as an adult. I indulge the idea, though, and recall how at primary school I was the only boy angel. Though I did insist.

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Friday 21st December 2018. I must stop mistaking irritability for a cheap source of happiness.

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Saturday 22nd December 2018. The great thing about Christmas jumpers is that they allow one to identify a gang of lads approaching with vital seconds of notice. I’ve found that there now seems to be divergence in the colour scheme. The jumpers with a blue background tend to be more tasteful and wry. It’s the red jumpers that mark out lads who are out to make trouble. At least, that’s what’s worn by a group of drunk men in St Pancras Marks & Spencers tonight, as they hijack some wheeled stacks of baskets and push each other around in them.

**

Sunday 23rd December 2018. Statistically, Christmas is responsible for an awful lot of depression. I myself run low on money today, hitting that dreaded ‘card declined’ moment in shops. I walk the streets in despair for some time. But what helps me snap out of it is the realisation that Christmas was, like many midwinter festivals, invented as a remedy against the despondency and fear caused by the season’s lack of light. Beneath the surface of the enforced jollity and the pressure to buy and to consume, it turns out that Christmas was your friend all along.

I also cheer myself up by noticing that there’s a mosaic of a Christmas pudding on the floor of a certain public building in central London, so I take a photo and run a quick seasonal quiz on Twitter. Alexandra Chiriac (@arthistorynomad) wins. The answer is Boris Anrep’s mosaics in the main entrance hall of the National Gallery. Specifically, it’s the east vestibule mosaic, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929). ‏Also in the mosaics are Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, and Greta Garbo. But unless you look down, you miss them.

**

To Hackney Picturehouse for Mary Poppins Returns. The audience applauds at the end, which doesn’t easily happen at the self-consciously trendy Picturehouse.

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24th to 27th December 2018. I spend Christmas with Mum in Suffolk. Just the two of us. An entirely pleasant and happy time.

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Saturday 29th December 2018. I watch an ‘alumni’ edition of University Challenge. There’s a question put to the Peterhouse, Cambridge team, which is led by the former Conservative leader, Michael Howard. ‘Name the author of these books: The Sadeian Woman, The Passion Of New Eve, and The Magic Toyshop.’ None of them know the answer. Then again, perhaps it would be more upsetting if Michael Howard was a fan of Angela Carter.

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Monday 31st Dec 2018. I’m reading Sentencing Orlando, a new book of essays on the Woolf novel. One writer remarks that Woolf’s Orlando would have voted for Brexit. There’s no explanation as to why this might be the case, other than a vague indication of Orlando’s conservatism, on account of his/her aristocratic status. I’d have thought that given Orlando’s defiance of the boundaries of gender and mortality, for them to embrace geographical boundaries would then be out of character. Still, this is a parlour game for the times: which among the dead or the fictional would have voted for Brexit? And so it goes on.

I see in the New Year alone in my room in Dalston, half watching TV, half looking at Twitter, with pleasant drinks and food to hand. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

**

Tuesday January 1st 2019. Resolution: to embrace my oddness. I used to, but in recent years I’ve tried to be more normal in case it led to being more liked. It rather backfired: I just met with more rejection. So here’s to Weirdo Visibility. But in a good way.

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Thursday 3rd January 2018. In 1970 my father, Brian Edwards, was hired to illustrate the cover of the first UK edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. They sent him Vonnegut’s own manuscript to work with. The publishers didn’t use his design on the finished book, instead going for a straightforward title-only design:

Today I’m searching the web and find an auction of a rare proof copy, which has Dad’s design. It must be something of a collector’s item. I tell Mum and she finds one among Dad’s things in the house in Suffolk. This is the front cover:

The illustration carries on to the back of the dust jacket:

Dad’s name appears on the bottom of the back flap:

**

Friday 11th January 2019. I submit my third & final annual attempt to secure a maintenance grant for my PhD. Applying for funding makes me think of that line from Michael Frayn’s Clockwise: ‘It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope’.

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Friday 18th January 2019. Editing my own work. Note to self: ‘Dear Dickon, you are only allowed one ‘accordingly’.

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Sunday 20th January 2019. I watched the Fyre Festival documentary, or at least the one on Netflix. There’s another one out at the same time. In 2017, Fyre was a ‘luxury’ music festival on an island in the Bahamas, which quickly became a disaster. The documentary is an entertaining piece of storytelling, depicting the hubris of the Instagram generation, how young people with too much money can come a cropper of the need to be ‘where it’s at’. A sort of Bullingdon Club mentality, in fact, just like the opening scenes of Decline and Fall.Some good has come of this glossy schadenfreude: there’s crowdfunding sites to help the local caterers and builders who worked on the festival, only to be left out of pocket. While this is cheering, there’s still the uneasy sense of, as with Bullingdon, rich people getting away with it, or even profiting, because of who they are.

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Wednesday 23rd January 2019. To Islington, and the offices of the publisher Unbound, to be the guest on the Backlisted podcast. The discussion takes place after office hours, on a table in a corner of the open-plan, modern building, close to the canal. They dim the lights and provide pink gin. Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, the regular hosts, are extremely good at what they do. They carve out their own territory on a spectrum between an amateur book group, with its connotations of rambling indulgence, and a Radio 4 book programme, which, while more professional, can evoke an unconvincing stiffness. Backlisted captures the appeal of old books for those who take their interest seriously but never without a big, kind heart. The Unbound office is also close to Noel Road, where Joe Orton lived and so graphically died. There’s a nice connection there for talking about the different ways a post-war English gay writer might align himself: Wilson the establishment man, Orton the outlaw.   

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Saturday 26 January 2018. In Russell Square I walk past a lad sitting on a bench. He shouts at me.

‘Like your hair, mate.’

‘Thank you very much.’

‘I was joking.’

‘I’m afraid I have to accept your first answer.’

I feel I should add that this retort was a prepared one. I’ve had these sarcastic, two-part cat calls before.

It’s the desperation of the second part that intrigues: the catcaller is now anxious to inform you of their true intention. In the case of the Russell Square lad, if I’d just said, ‘Thank you very much’ after his initial remark, and immediately put in my headphones, it’s not a stretch to imagine him getting off the bench and racing after me. ‘OY! You need to know that I was joking!’

Why make a two-part catcall? Perhaps, contrary to the song, the second cut is the deepest.

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Sunday 27th January 2019. To the Lexington for a charity gig by The Fallen Women, being the all-woman Fall karaoke band, with Fosca’s Charley Stone on guitar. The guest singers, who do one song each, include a bearded Stewart Lee, who does ‘Iceland’ (I think), and takes it extremely seriously. Another young woman, a DJ with afro hair whose name I can’t remember, does ‘Repetition’ and turns in a first-class post-punk performance.

Sharon Horgan, the comedy actress, also sings – I’m later told she’s something of a Fall expert. I chat to Beth and Bobby of Trembling Blue Stars, plus Sarah Bee.

**

Saturday 2nd February 2019. I listen to the podcast version of the BBC Radio 4 programme, A Good Read. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the choice of Scarlett Curtis, the Sunday Times’s pink-haired voice of young women. The Argonauts really is a book of these times, the talisman of a generation which thinks more fluidly about gender and sexuality, though Maggie Nelson herself is a little older. This issue may indeed end up as a fleeting fashion (I’m thinking of The Bisexual line: ‘Everyone under 25 these days calls themselves queer’) but I nevertheless find it cheering and exciting.

Something else on A Good Read that defines this age: one of the guests, the comedian Catherine Bohart, calls the radio recording a ‘podcast’, even though it’s been a BBC radio show for years. She is not corrected. Perhaps all audio recordings are now podcasts full stop, while live radio is ‘live podcasting’. It’s all content from the web. Except that the device that spawned the ‘pod’ part – the iPod – is nearly obsolete. The word is already a tribute to recent history.

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Monday 4th February 2019. The Backlisted podcast was published (or uploaded) today. I listen, and squirm at the sound of my voice, gabbling and lisping in my strange little way. Still, I take comfort from the speaking career of Slavoj Zizek, who has a similar lateral lisp and air of tenseness, but who also has that strong Eastern European accent. Does that stop him from being booked to speak? Quite the reverse. He’s worked his shortcomings into a unique brand. All the same, while I can’t help the lisp, I need to put more effort into making my voice slower and more controlled next time. But this is vanity. The best result from the podcast appearance would be that people seek out the books of Angus Wilson.

I take comfort from Wilson too, who clearly had a level of camp hysteria to his personality, but which he managed to channel into productive writing and clear (if fast) speaking. That’s one reason why I chose Hemlock and After: it tries to explain why people are the way they are, with an emphasis on camp men.  

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Announcement: On the 5th of February at 7pm I shall be appearing at the British Library in London, as part of the event Diaries: Lives and Times. Tickets are available online at: https://shar.es/aaPxH6

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DE’s Christmas and New Year Message 2018

Dickon Edwards with an indoor Christmas Tree. Bildeston, 26 December 2018.
Bildeston, 26 December 2018. Taken by Lynne Edwards.

Every Christmas since 2003 I’ve posted a new photograph of myself to the diary. The rule is that I must pose alongside a Christmas tree, and that it has to be a different tree each year. It’s now got to the point where I can’t remember which trees I’ve done. So this year I thought I’d collate all the photos to date, and reflect upon that. 

2017: Dalston Rio
2016: Whitfield Gardens, near Goodge Street tube
2015: Dean Street Townhouse, Soho
2014: Birkbeck Main Building, Torrington Square
2013: London Review Bookshop
2012: St Pancras Station
2011: Birkbeck School of Arts, Gordon Square
2010: St Pancras Station
2009: Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley
2008: Natural History Museum, South Kensington
2007: The London Library
2006: The Waldorf Hilton, Aldwych
2005: The Boogaloo, Highgate
2004: The Boogaloo, Highgate
2003: Somerset House

It now turns out that I didn’t start the ‘different tree’ rule until four years in. I also could have sworn I’d ‘done’ Trafalgar Square and Bildeston village square. But clearly I haven’t. All traditions are distortions.

I spent much of 2018 worrying that I wasn’t very good at doing anything at all. The ongoing lack of money rather got to me, and it was hard not to escape the feeling of having low worth per se. So it is, I hope, fair to myself rather than vain if I focus on a few highlights:

  • I was officially awarded with the post-graduate degree of Master of Arts, with distinction, for Contemporary Literature and Culture. This took place at the MA graduation ceremony in April, and my mother was able to attend. My prize for being the best student on the course that year was also announced.
  • My MA dissertation was used in a class for the next year’s students, as an example of ‘outstanding practice’.
  • Although I was upset about being declined for a PhD maintenance grant, I still had the fee waiver, and so was able to enrol for a second year on Birkbeck’s part-time PhD course.
  • I submitted two out of the five chapters on my thesis about Ronald Firbank and camp modernism, which comprised over 35,000 words.
  • I wrote and presented two papers: one on Firbank and camp at an Aubrey Beardsley conference, and one on Grant Richards at the ‘Publishing Queer’ conference at Senate House Library.
  • I wrote and presented an LGBT-themed tour of the Bloomsbury Group houses in Gordon Square, as part of Open House London.
  • I wrote a handful of arts reviews for The Wire.
  • I started work on two book projects: a novel (The Beautiful and Weird) and a collection of essays (Dorian’s Book, Irene’s Coat)
  • The diary was excerpted in Bus Fare, an anthology of bus-related writings edited by Travis Elborough. It’s the fourth book to use selections from my diary.
  • I managed to continue living in Dalston, the Tangier of London, for a second year.

On Twitter, many people use images of actors or celebrities reacting in some way in order to express their own reactions. These are visual quotations; I prefer quotations of words. The following, being my favourites from the diary in 2018, might serve as an illustration of my current disposition:

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

Derek Jarman: ‘We are all failures and we know it. It’s that knowledge which keeps us trying’ – At Your Own Risk.

Stewart Lee: ‘I massively slimmed down my expectations of life and just worked on making the work work’ – from ‘Where Are the Thinkers?’ (Post-Nearly Press).

My books of the year, which also indicate what sort of person I was in 2018, were: Ronald Firbank’s Flower Beneath the Foot (the new Picador Classics edition), Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done, All The Perverse Angels by Sarah K Marr, Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.

In 2018 I thought about the importance of spending time on an individual style of writing, as opposed to pumping out content which could be written by anyone. There’s too much content. We need to get post-content.

The other enduring theme of my year was money. How hard it is, more than ever before, to get paid for writing or researching or making music or making art. A headline from an article in Pitchfork asked: ‘How do we support musicians when the easiest way to listen to their music barely pays them at all?’ My answer is: donate to them directly. If you like an artist’s work, and they’re alive, seek out their website. If they are accepting donations, that means they need them. So donate.

In fact, writers asking for donations is nothing new. One of my favourite discoveries this year was a notice in an issue of Horizon magazine, published in 1941, under the title of ‘Begging Bowl’. It was thought to be by, or inspired by, the notorious Dylan Thomas: ‘If you particularly enjoy anything in Horizon, send the author a tip. Not more than One Hundred Pounds: that would be bad for his character. Not less than Half-a-Crown: that would be bad for yours.’ (source: Michael Shelden, Friends of Promise, p. 81).

My thanks go out to the handful of readers who sent in donations for the diary in 2018. To believe in publishing material online without adverts or clickbait increasingly feels like a political act. Indeed, donating is voting: it indicates what you like, what you believe in, and what you want to see more of. So I am grateful to those who want this diary to, as it were, remain.

Wishing you all good fortune for 2019,

Dickon Edwards
Dalston, London.

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LIVE EVENT: On February 5th, I will be speaking about diaries at the British Library:

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


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