Monday 5th March 2018. In bed for most of the day, laid low with despair and anxiety. Still struggling with a lack of purpose, a lack of money, and a lack of knowing what best to do about it all.
Tuesday 6th March 2018. To the Rio for Lady Bird, the Greta Gerwig film. Fairly straightforward coming-of-age fare; funny and poignant. Not a patch on her wonderful Frances Ha, which I went to see twice. But enjoyable enough. There’s an unexpected pleasure in the form of Sondheim songs, performed as part of a school musical. It’s like the secret helpings of Britten one stumbles upon in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
Thursday 8th March 2018. Researching George Barbier, the Art Deco artist and Beardsley collector, whose work is on the cover of the forthcoming Firbank edition from Picador. Despite the 1920s fizzy beauty of his work, books on Barbier aren’t easy to come by. So I make my first visit to the Courtauld library, part of Somerset House on the Strand. The place has a higher ratio than usual of elegantly dressed female students, so balletic and pristine that they seem to have not so much enrolled as floated off the shelves. One or two even wear berets.
I am reading Author Hunting (1934), the second memoir by Grant Richards, publisher of Ronald Firbank. Richards is often painted as the villain in the story, only agreeing to publish Firbank’s strange, experimentally camp novels if the author paid for the production costs out of his own pocket. Brigid Brophy calls Richards a ‘publisher’ in inverted commas throughout her huge book on Firbank,Â Prancing Novelist. Alan Hollinghurst calls him ‘unscrupulous’. Even the Times obituary, which was written by a friend, said Richards had a ‘recurrent lack of scruple’. I see him as closer to certain indie record bosses: Anthony H Wilson of Factory Records springs to mind. People who are dodgy when it comes to paying their artists or dealing with money full stop (Richards went bankrupt twice). Yet ultimately they’re still fans, allies and enablers of art. Often they are the only ones making the art exist at all.
Richards not only published Firbank when no one else would do so, but also Lord Alfred Douglas’s poems when Wilde was out of prison. Plus all of AE Housman’s poems, and Joyce’sÂ Dubliners, which he somehow fails to mention in his memoirs.
In 1917 Richards took out a regular advert in the Times Literary Supplement, one that was cleverly disguised as an opinion column. He would gossip about life in publishing, plugging his own titles in the process. Today one would called this ‘sponsored content’ or ‘advertorials’. It’s possible that Richards may have invented the idea. These days he would an active tweeter.
Monday 12 March 2018. Bad news from Birkbeck: my application for a PhD maintenance grant on the PhD is unsuccessful, for the second year running. This is despite my doing everything I was told to do last year, when I was told I came close to being accepted. I joined extra reading groups, I got accepted at conferences, and I did my best on the MA. In fact, I got the course prize for being the best student on the MA that year. But evidently this still wasn’t enough.
So today I’m demoralized. I drown my sorrows at Mangal 2 with Shanthi and Paul, her partner, before being slightly cheered up by seeing I Tonya across the road at the Rio. The film manages to balance its self-aware moments of camp bitchery with serious ideas about class, domestic abuse, and the pain of public shaming. The scene in front of the mirror is remarkable, with Margot Robbie (the lead) valiantly daubing on her make-up and practicing her smile, all the time fighting back tears. Well, that’s how I feel now, particularly when smiling politely at the Birkbeck tutors I pass in Gordon Square, some of whom would have been behind the decision not to fund me.
On the plus side, I do have five years of the PhD fees paid for by the smaller fee-waiving grant I won last year, so I can’t claim to feel entirely rejected by academia. And my supervisor is attentive and encouraging. And it’s not as if the world of paid work is exactly kicking down my door.
A PhD maintenance grant is 16K – the minimum wage, effectively. The recommended London Living Wage is about £20k. But I’m a cheap date, still fine with renting rooms at the age of 46. I hope I can find it from some alternative funding body, or make it up through smaller amounts. My research is on Firbank and modernist camp, so there might be a LGBT charity out there who could be interested.
Two other options would involve abandoning the PhD altogether:
(1) finding a pre-funded PhD in a similar but different subject – and successfully applying for it; or
(2) finding a full-time paid job which I’m actually suited for. That elusive dream!
Another idea is to start a Patreon page, offering little self-published books of my arts writing, as rewards for the support. Fully annotated and indexed collections of essays, like Woolf’s Common Reader or Waugh’s essay on the Pre-Raphaelites, which his friend had printed up for him at Oxford, and which led to his career proper. This way my research could be made available in a way that would actually remunerate me: professional academic publishing is notoriously underpaid.
The first such book would be calledÂ Dorian’s Book, Irene’s Coat. It wouldÂ feature my essays on The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. Not quite as niche as Firbank.
Friday 16 March 2018. I give a paper on camp, Firbank, and Aubrey Beardsley at a conference on Beardsley, Mary Ward House, Tavistock Place. Unpaid work, of course, though I do enjoy it on this occasion. Go for dinner afterwards with the other speakers, including Kate Hext, scholar on decadenceÂ from Exeter University. Talking to others about my funding woes, I get the same sort of answer: academia is so competitive, the arts subjects even more so. My abiding impression is that the system seems designed to put people off rather than attract them. And yet there’s more students than ever.
Kate H’s paper points out how Beardsley is on the cover of Sgt Pepper, and that his prints are mentioned as a girl’s choice of decoration in a Rod Stewart hit, ‘You’re in My Heart’ (1977). Similarly there’s a scene in Carry On Girls (1970 ish) in which Terry Scott is trying to seduce a girl in a fashionable London flat. The walls are covered in Beardsley prints. Two types of camp at the same time, high and low.
Another note from today: with all that black and white art, it’s easy to forget that Beardsley himself had red hair.
Thursday 22 March 2018. My former landlady Ms JW tells me that the house in Highgate, where I lived in one bedsit for 23 years, has now been converted back into a single home and sold, to a family with three young children. I think of the ending of the film Exhibition. Ms J adds that during the house’s sixty-year history as a building of rented bedsits, about a hundred people must have lived there.
Friday 23 March 2018. A meeting at Gordon Square with my supervisor. Then to the BFI Southbank for a couple of films in the LGBT ‘Flare’ festival: They, a quiet, ethereal study of a trans teenager, and The Carmilla Movie, a colourful, campy spin-off of a low budget web series. Very Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also very arch in a distinctly queer way. Someone makes a joke: one sign of a lesbian-made film – the credits are full of Jessicas.
Saturday 24 March 2018. Still brooding over the funding. I find myself looking up which of my post-war heroes had PhDs, not counting honorary ones. Far fewer than I thought. One who did was Christine Brooke-Rose. She probably wrote her thesis entirely in anagrams.
Susan Sontag taught, but never completed her doctorate, which shocks me. Hollinghurst taught at UCL and had a Master’s from Oxford, but no doctorate. Angela Carter and William Burroughs likewise. See also Will Self and Martin Amis. In her latest book of essays Zadie Smith says modestly that although she teaches a MFA course in New York, she has no MFA herself. She fears she has ‘no real qualifications’ to pronounce on literature. It’s tempting to think Will Self would have made the same statement into a boast.
Birkbeck only let you teach a class once you’ve ‘upgraded’ on the PhD course. This is the halfway point, where you submit a large chunk of your thesis and have it approved as good enough to continue.
I can’t stop thinking about William Burroughs. No PhD, he shot a woman dead, and he still got work as a teacher.
Friday 30 March 2018. When researching on a deeper level, checking the sources of the sources, one realises just how many errors there are in scholarly books. Today it’s a recent Penguin Classics introduction. This has quotations from letters which I realise have just been copied out of an old biography. The writer – an academic – hasn’t checked the full original letters. I have, and I can see he’s made a few (minor) mistakes. So that boosts my confidence somewhat.
Saturday 31 March 2018. With Mum to Cambridge to see the newly refurbished Kettle’s Yard. My favourite painting is by Christopher Wood, Boy with Cat (1926). I had no previous knowledge of Wood but am delighted to discover his work is very much compatible with my interests: the 1920s, queer bohemian circles and so on. The beautiful, tie-wearing Boy in question is one of the twins that inspired Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles.
Sunday 1 April 2018. To the Shakespeare’s Head for Shanthi’s birthday. The pub is in Arlington Way, round the back of Sadler’s Wells. It’s the sort of old fashioned showbiz pub one now rarely finds: walls covered in signed photos of light entertainment stars. Danny La Rue, Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Roy Hudd.
Wednesday 4 April 2018. Evidence of the ‘zero hours’ economy. With Shanthi to the Rio for The Square. A satire on the art world, like a kind of Swedish Nathan Barley, with touches of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital. Quite original and engrossing, but goes on for too long. So much so that Shanthi loses out on a temping job she had applied for that day. Shanthi says that the only reason she didn’t check her phone for emails was because the film was longer than she’d thought. Her would-be employer expected her to reply at once to the job offer, at 8pm in the evening, or he’d give it to someone else. So that’s what happened. There’s a satirical scene right there.
The same day I say no to appearing on BBC Radio 4. It would have been an unpaid task anyway: a magazine programme about PhD arts students; asking why there are too many, and why it’s hard to get the funding, and so on. I decline partly because I’m still sore about the funding, and might say something that would make things worse. But also because my thoughts on doing a PhD at all are currently in flux.
Sunday 8 April 2018. To the Constitution pub in St Pancras Way for Kath G’s birthday. It’s at Debbie Smith’s club, The Nitty Gritty. I chat to Deb Googe, who’s preparing to play with My Bloody Valentine at this year’s Meltdown (as curated by Robert Smith of the Cure). She says she sometimes bumps into her fellow MBV member Bilinda Butcher in the audiences of West End musicals, of all things. Half a Sixpence, An American in Paris, those sort of shows.
I wonder if there should be a MBV jukebox musical, where their distinctive white noise sound is replicated along with the songs. This isn’t so far-fetched: MBV once covered ‘We Have All The Time In The World’, the James Bond song. I can imagine an album: My Bloody Valentine Perform Hits From The Shows.
Wednesday 11 April 2018. Hair bleached at the Tony and Guy Academy, New Oxford Street. Only £25, but the risk is that the student may get it wrong. And they do: after nearly 4 hours I come away with a pale reddish-gold colour, darker than the shade I usually have. The student played safe and put too weak a level of peroxide in the mix. But I should be grateful to have such resilient hair full stop.
Sunday 15 April 2018. With Jennifer Hodgson, she of the Ann Quin story collection, to Café Oto in Dalston for a gig by The Pastels. Support is by Eva Orleans, a spellbinding Polish performer. The Pastels do ‘Through Your Heart’ and ‘If I Could Tell You’, so that’s me happy. Say hello to Clare Wadd, Jon Slade, Beth and Bobby from Trembling Blue Stars, Paul Kelly, and Debsey. Faces from my past, I suppose, though as I’m still struggling to have a present (by which I mean a career), I don’t feel ready toÂ admitÂ to a past. For me, the present is a foreign country too.
Tuesday 17 April 2018. My MA diploma arrives in the mail. I am out when it arrives so have to collect it from a mysterious and barely signposted delivery office, deep among the residential streets of Stamford Hill. As in Golders Green, many of the locals are in Hasidic Jewish apparel: the men and boys in black hats and coats, with beards and side curls. In fact, the same beards are now fashionable with all men in East London.
Fashion is also a faith: the joy of conformity, of taking instructions, and so belonging. It’s fair to say, in my white suit and bleached hair and defiant lack of beard, I stand out even more than usual.
Thursday 19 April. To the Royal Festival Hall for Stewart Lee – Content Provider. Ticket: a very reasonable £19. I suppose this is where I feel I do belong, being a Stewart Lee fan. And yet I feel so alienated by the teeming hordes of blokish un-weirdÂ men around me, in the identical look of beards, backpacks and shorts, that I nearly go home in the interval. As it is, when Mr Lee does his usual remarks about attracting too many non-fans, this time blaming the Friends of the Southbank Mailing List,Â he really seems to be right. On the way in I see a group of men consulting a print-out, with one of them saying, ‘So we’re seeing this guy called… Stewart Lee?’. People heckle his anti-Brexit remarks (the heckle being: ‘It was voted for by ORDINARY PEOPLE!). When he goes into one of his extended ramblings, someone shouts ‘Get on with it!’ Would they do so at a Samuel Beckett play?
What I don’t understand is why someone would pay £20 to see an act they have zero knowledge about. Or if, as Mr Lee suggests, they are only there because a friend or partner has dragged them along, why do such ‘friends’ forget about the existence of different tastes?
Though I suppose that’s the lot of many relationships. I once went to see the film ofÂ The Hobbit (or one of them). As the lights went down, the man next to me said to his wife: ‘I’ve no idea what this is about’.
He spent most of the film miserably looking at his phone. I wanted to tell his wife, who was clearly the Hobbit Fan in the marriage: ‘If you love someone, set them free’.
Friday 20 April 2018. Wrote a book review for The Wire. Margo Jefferson on Michael Jackson. She quotes John Gielgud: ‘Style is knowing what play you’re in’.
Sunday 22 April 2018. I delete my Facebook account, taking care to download my photos first.
One reason was the increasingly sinister reports about Mr Zuckerberg and his chums. They’re currently being hauled over the coals for farming out people’s data to third parties.Â Another was the increasingly cluttered interface, which recalled the last days of MySpace (so much for lessons learned). The posts of friends were becoming hard to find among all the adverts.
A further reason was the way photos from my past were being spontaneously regurgitated by algorithms, to remind me what I was doing this time five years ago, or whenever. I suppose the hoped-for emotion is gratitude (‘Look at me back then!’). But because the memory-jolting is not only unsolicited but performed by a machine, my emotion is closer to horror. I have enough of a problem putting my present into order, without having my memories toyed with by a website.
A further reason still, though, is that I’m just curious to see whether going without Facebook will make me happier, or less happy, or will have no effect whatsoever. There is only one way to find out.
I’m still on Twitter, which at least is easier to navigate.
I also need to get my mailing list up and running again: that’s the way to get information to people.
Mon 23 April 2018. Read an article about the fuss over The Simpsons character Apu, and whether or not he has become an outdated racial stereotype. I think of Mickey Rooney’s Japanese character in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and how that became increasingly unwatchable over time. The columnist bemoans how one cannot be a ‘woolly liberal’ anymore: it’s either join in with the accusers, or be labelled as tacitly supporting the sin under discussion. I don’t think things are that extreme, but certainly online there’s a sense of constantly having to take up binary positions. The internet encourages ‘conversation’, but it rarely is an actual conversation. More like an exchange of jerking knees.
Thursday 26 April 2018. My MA graduation ceremony, held at the Royal National Hotel in Bedford Way, Bloomsbury. Mum bravely attends, her wrist currently in plaster after a fall last Sunday.
My course prize is announced as I go up to shake hands with the Master of Birkbeck. I also meet up with my fellow ‘study buddy’ students Craig and Hafsa. Last summer we helped each other along on our dissertations, making suggestions for structure and footnotes, and having our own little ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions. It’s a kind of positive shaming strategy: so much harder to avoid work if you’ve promised to show it to your friends.
My former MA tutor Grace H asks me if she can use an excerpt from my dissertation in her class, as an example of ‘outstanding practice’. She says that to show it to the current students ‘would really help their development’. I agree, of course, and feel honoured.
Still not sure if I’m the right sort of person to be a classroom teacher. I can’t do crowd control, so that rules out teaching teens and children. (I could never say, ‘It’s your own time you’re wasting’ without wanting to get into a philosophical discussion). Lectures and talks, certainly. One to one tutoring? Possibly.Â But as in the case of my dissertation being used to teach future students, I think I’m best suited to writing things, and putting them out there, and hopefully people getting something out of them. The tricky part, though, is how to do this andÂ get paid.
Friday 27 April 2018. To the Tate Britain for the exhibition All Too Human. A rather vague and random theme, to do with London art schools (I think), which somehow connects nude studies with London street scenes. Anything to justify rounding up lots of Bacons and Freuds – those crowd pulling names. Plus a few other British artists of the last century: Jenny Saville supplies a portrait of a big, sweaty, fleshy face. I still can’t stand many of the Freuds, especially the one with the girl strangling the kitten, to the point where I wonder if it’s just the surname that got him his esteem. To be a Freud must certainly open doors, or at least raise eyebrows.
One painting is of Dalston, by Kossoff:Â Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction, Summer 1974.Â It’s so abstract, though, a bafflement of splodges, that I can’t tell which street is which. Or indeed, which way up the canvas is.
Saturday 28 April 2018. In the London Library, working on Chapter 1 of the thesis. Still more research to be done. Always my problem: when to stop looking things up and start turning the notes into prose.
I find myself going down rabbit holes of inquiry, ones which have no reason to ever end. Lately it’s been Angus Wilson, who not only was described as camp before Sontag’s essay, but who also wrote about writing in a camp style himself, in 1963.
Wilson also uses the French word chichi as a synonym for camp. When Proust used chichiÂ in A la recherche,Â Scott-Moncrieff translated it simply as ‘camp’.Â This was the late 1920s: not quite the first appearance of the term in fiction (Robert McAlmon got there in 1923) but still daringly early. It was proof that Scott-Moncrieff was either au fait withÂ queer slang, or (as seems to be the case) he was of that inclination himself.
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Tags: angus wilson, birkbeck, camp, ma, MA graduation, phd, Phd funding, stewart lee