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.
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.
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.
21st December 2018. I must stop mistaking
irritability for a cheap source of happiness.
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.
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). â€Also in the mosaics are Virginia
Woolf, Winston Churchill, and Greta Garbo. But unless you look down, you miss
To Hackney Picturehouse for Mary Poppins Returns. The audience applauds at the end, which doesn’t
easily happen at the self-consciously trendy Picturehouse.
to 27th December 2018. I spend Christmas with Mum in Suffolk. Just
the two of us. An entirely pleasant and happy time.
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.
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.
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.
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
Dad’s name appears on the bottom of the back flap:
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
18th January 2019. Editing my own work. Note
to self: ‘Dear Dickon, you are only allowed one ‘accordingly’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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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