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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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’.

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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).

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

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Story of The Hair

Saturday 9th May 2015.

A laid-back week of reading in cafes, or tidying up at home. ‘Cut thistles in May / They’ll grow in a day’, goes the gardening rhyme. No gardener I, not even of pot plants. Instead I prune my books, lest they march across the floor.

Lots of taking back of library books, and donating to charity shops. A certain elation now, over being able to read what I want, without the guilt of thinking I should be spending such time on a set text. But there’s also a kind of grieving, of not being able to comprehend how the course is finally over.

* * *

Monday 11th May 2015.

4pm: To Maison Bertaux in Soho for tea with Laurence Hughes. New paintings by Noel Fielding on the walls. Laurence reminds me how Derek Jarman was a regular here: he visited Jarman in his Charing Cross flat.

I rather like how this chat turns out to be my first social occasion after the election, given that LH is a UKIP member, and I’m a Green. We politely agree to disagree over matters political, but otherwise get on fine. As it is, we can grumble in unison over the unfairness of the voting system, when millions of votes can only result in a single MP.

Today I remind myself how many of my favourite writers were not exactly tuned into my political wavelength. Evelyn Waugh for starters. A man who in his novels could write so perceptively and beautifully about the business of being human full stop, while in his diary he made remarks like: ‘It is impudent and exorbitant to demand truth from the lower classes’ (Waugh: Diaries, July 1961, p. 784).

Similarly, I’ll always remember how during my candidacy in the 2006 Haringey Council elections, the people who were friendliest to me at the count, after the Greens, were the local Tories. All anyone ever wants to know about anyone is ‘were they nice?

* * *

Wednesday 13th May 2015.

A day trip to Brighton. £19 day return, a noon train from Victoria, the sea appearing in under an hour. I feel smug about the timing: the sunniest day all week. Some men on the pier are going bare-chested, in that time-honoured, overly optimistic, utterly English way. I revisit the Pavilion for tea on the balcony, this time learning from the staff that the Banqueting Hall was once used for a film dream sequence. It’s in the Barbra Streisand musical, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). I find it on YouTube (one must search for the song ‘Love With All The Trimmings’). Given that the Pavilion is often held up as an example of camp avant la lettre, and that the building inspired Aubrey Beardsley, who in turn inspired a whole universe of camp, it’s fair to say that the Streisand scene attains a level of campness that soars off the scale. Even more so: her costume is designed by Cecil Beaton.

* * *

Thursday 14th May 2015.

To the new Maggi Hambling exhibition at Somerset House: War Requiem & Aftermath. A couple of sound installations, one using Britten’s War Requiem, one using ambient sea noises. Most of it is on the theme of war and ruins, but there’s also a posthumous portrait of Sebastian Horsley, which I’d not seen before. SH’s face is a mass of morbid, octopoid black swirls, in the typical Hambling style. Actually, my hair is very Hambling-esque at the moment. I’ve left cutting it for so long that it’s turned into a thick hedge of curved lines, without quite becoming curly. It never grows down, only out.

* * *

Friday 15th May 2015.

The Boston bomber gets the death sentence. He is 21.

For all its faults, today I feel glad to live in a country that has fully abolished capital punishment, in all circumstances.

* * *

To the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema in the Brunswick Centre, formerly the Renoir. A sign in the shopping centre nearby still points to it as the Renoir. This triggers a phobia of mine: signs that point to things that no longer exist. A hint of reality breaking down. Bloomsbury has a shaky relationship with time as it is: every other building is entirely held together by blue plaques.

In music news this week: Jarvis Cocker and the other members of Pulp unveil a plaque to mark the site of their first gig. Cocker gives a witty reply to the inevitable query as to the next Pulp reunion: ‘I think plaques are the way forward for Pulp now.’ The heritage explosion certainly mirrors the endless need for commenting online: primary content must be secured, anchored, celebrated, pored over. No end of anniversaries.

And so: no end of documentaries either. I’m here to investigate the new Bertha DocHouse inside the Curzon Bloomsbury, billed as London’s first documentary-only cinema. It’s one of several small screens inside the same underground complex, so I’m not sure it counts as a ‘cinema’ in itself. However, the screen is given its own little entrance lounge, Minotaur-like, deep within the labyrinth of the Curzon. This is two floors down, past three bars, and along several corridors, all of which are refurbished in a kind of Brutalist Deco style: part 1960s (to acknowledge the Brunswick Centre), and part 1920s Metropolis, with dark spaces punctuated by elegantly shaped pools of light,  with signs in Deco lettering.

The new documentary I see on the DocHouse screen is Lambert and Stamp. It’s about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed The Who during the band’s 1960s and early 70s heyday. In the archive footage, Chris Stamp is a shockingly pretty young man – a proper ‘Ace Face’ Mod, with an immaculate feathercut hairdo and a range of sharp suits. Much is made of the way he looked more like a rock star than the band he managed. When Terence Stamp turns out to be his brother, it all makes sense. The Epstein-esque Lambert – very gay and posh – is long dead, so Stamp – very straight and working class – does most of the talking in the film. He seems to have had a life of falling into things accidentally. He thought he’d be a documentary filmmaker himself – The Who were originally taken on in order to appear in some sort of film about the London music scene. But the band took over, and the film was never made. By the time a film was made – Tommy – Pete Townsend feared the managers had enough control, so it went to Ken Russell. Eventually it all ends in drug addiction, and the band sue Stamp and Lambert for mismanagement, though Stamp is at pains to point out that the Who owned Shepperton Studios thanks to them, so they can’t have been that bad. I later discover that Chris Stamp died in 2012. It’s proof that these independent documentaries can really take a while to come out.

Also learned: when the High Numbers changed their name to The Who (‘the High Numbers sounded too… Bingo‘), one name they considered was The Hair.

* * *

Evening: to the Birkbeck student union bar, for a drinks gathering among my fellow English BA finalists. The bar is on the fourth floor of the main college building, in Torrington Square. We stand outside, on the bar’s rooftop terrace.

Some years ago, when the smoking ban came in, the idea of there being non-smoking areas outdoors was laughed at. Not anymore. Despite being in the open air, and high above street level, half the rooftop terrace is designated for non-smoking, while the other half is for smoking. A security guard gets into a loud and embarrassing argument with one of our party. It turns out that our friend has accidentally dared to smoke slightly over the border between these two sections of unfettered breeze. It’s only now that we learn that an object, mounted on a nearby wall, is meant to mark the dividing line: ‘You’re standing on the wrong side of the satellite dish!’

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Fish Of The Day

Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.

* * *

Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.

Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.

But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that.  I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.

* * *

Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.

People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.

I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’

What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.

His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:

WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?

LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?

WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…

* * *

Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.

The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.

* * *

Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.

* * *

Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):

 ‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’

The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.

Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.


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Animal Hospital with Eric Gill

Tuesday 1st July 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. I see the film Chef, starring Jon Favreau, who also writes and directs. It has a similar ambience to Fading Gigolo, in that it’s a labour of love by one unstarry-looking Hollywood type, who has asked various more starry friends to appear in back-up roles. Just as Fading Gigolo had John Turturro supported by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Vanessa Paradis, Chef has smaller roles filled by Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Junior. The ludicrously pretty Sofia Vergara is also in both films, playing the lumpen hero’s lover or former lover. The lead casting of Chef is rather more believable than Fading Gigolo, though. Whereas Mr Turturro seemed an implausible male escort, Mr Favreau makes an entirely convincing chef. Not least because he’s put on a fair amount of weight since he starred in Swingers – something that his own script makes jokes about.

The plot isn’t much – a top restaurant chef quits his job and runs his own sandwich van instead – but the detail is very up-to-date, particularly the depiction of the way Facebook and Twitter have become woven into lives. When a character in Chef writes a Tweet on a phone or laptop, a little input screen appears around their head. Once they click on ‘Post’, the floating screen turns into a tiny Disney-esque cartoon bird, which then flies off to do its work – or do its damage.

There isn’t much more to this film than an expression of Mr Favreau’s passion for good food, but it’s probably the happiest-feeling film I’ve seen in a long time. For all its slightness, it makes the East Finchley audience applaud at the end, and that doesn’t happen very often. The Phoenix cinema café has even changed its usual menu to match the film: it’s currently offering the same Cubanos sandwiches that Mr Favreau makes.

* * *

Wednesday 2nd July 2014. Hottest week of the year so far. Today I take advantage of the British Library’s air conditioning, skulking in the Rare Books Reading Room like the delicate object I am. I’m researching definitions of literary camp. One I’ve found – in Gary McMahon’s book Camp In Literature – contrasts camp with nineteenth century Decadence. Decadence is more about indulgence to the point of decay, while Camp blooms. Thus Dorian Gray is mainly Decadent, while Aubrey Beardsley’s art is mainly camp. His laughing fat woman on the cover of The Yellow Book is very much not heading for decay or doom. She’s taking on the wider world, and here to stay. Thus, she is camp.

* * *

Thursday 3rd July 2014. I’m standing at the bus stop in Muswell Hill, wearing a cream jacket and tie plus my near-matching new linen trousers, which I purchased cheaply from Uniqlo, on Oxford Street. At the bus stop, a woman passes me and remarks, ‘You look cool’, without stopping. I say thank you, though I do so warily, bracing myself for a mocking follow-up. I’m too used to people in London being sarcastic about my appearance. There was the woman who once blew a kiss at me from a passing car window on the Archway Road, only to shout back ‘NOT REALLY!’ as the car drove off. Or the young man at a Notting Hill bar who once chatted pleasantly to me and asked for my phone number, only to then send a series of insulting text messages after we’d parted.

I contrast this with my two trips to New York. There I also received unsolicited compliments from strangers, but ones which were clearly sincere from the off. Londoners are rather more mistrustful of each other than New Yorkers – the lack of speaking on the Tube being a good example. With guns banned, Londoners take instead to fearing words.

So when it comes to this latest surprise compliment offered to me at the Muswell Hill bus stop, my instinct is to put up my guard. But I have to assume the woman meant her compliment sincerely. I thus try my best to cover my instinctive wariness with enough outward signs of graciousness. Perform, perform, perform. All life is acting work.

* * *

Friday 4th July 2014. Rolf Harris gets five years in jail for assaults on young girls. Unlike that other children’s entertainer Jimmy Savile, who always had his rumours, Mr Harris seemed like a manifestly good man. Or rather, he did a very good impression of one. I was in the audience for the 2012 TV BAFTAs, at which he received his Fellowship award, the highest accolade one can get in British TV. It’s for a lifetime’s ‘outstanding and exceptional contribution to television’. But now I learn that the award has a condition attached. This week, BAFTA issue a single sentence as a press release:

‘The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has made the decision to annul the BAFTA Fellowship bestowed upon Rolf Harris in 2012, following his conviction.’

So BAFTA giveth, but BAFTA can also taketh away.

I’m curious about the Orwellian effects of this. I was definitely at the 2012 ceremony, and the award was definitely given to Mr H. But today, all the articles on the BAFTA website related to Harris have been either updated to mark the annulment, or removed altogether. Any URLS which once linked to interviews with him now redirect back to the website’s front page. Such is the modern extent of disgrace – URL redirection. Today, the 2012 Fellowship is just listed on the BAFTA site as ‘n/a’.

As someone who believes in trusting the art not the artist, I’m uneasy about private disgrace being extended to undermine public achievements. But then, I suppose Rolf Harris is not, say, Eric Gill. Mr Harris’s programmes were ephemeral, not made to be repeated forever (which is now just as well), and they were very much based upon his chosen persona of someone to trust around children. Eric Gill, however, who made lasting and beautiful sculptures in public while committing bestiality (and much besides) in private, did not present Animal Hospital. Still, this news proves that to be given a BAFTA Fellowship is not just to be told ‘well done’, but also ‘behave’.

It used to be the case that whenever one spoke of meeting a TV celebrity, the follow up question was always, ‘were they nice?’

Now it might be, ‘did you have any idea?’

***

Evening: to the Barbican with Ms Charis and Ed, for a Neil Gaiman event. Gaiman is accompanied by the Australian FourPlay String Quartet, who use the classical quartet set up in an unusual and versatile way. There’s lots of rhythmical scraping, strumming and slapping, the cello often becomes the equivalent of a bass guitar, and the viola is sometimes played like a ukulele. The main piece of the evening is ‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains’, a Gaiman long-ish short story (or a ‘novelette’, as in shorter than a novella). It’s a kind of Walter Scott fantasy tale, about a Scottish dwarf from the Lowlands travelling to a cave rumoured to be filled with gold. Mr G reads this beautifully, while FourPlay perform a soundtrack and illustrations by Eddie Campbell are projected on a screen.

FourPlay also play a short set on their own, including a cover of the Doctor Who theme. And as well as the main piece, Mr Gaiman reads some shorter stories: the older one ‘The Day The Saucers Came’ plus two from his Blackberry project, A Calendar of Tales. ‘July’ is set on the 4th of July, making perfect sense to be read tonight, while ‘October’ is my favourite of the evening, about a genie whose liberator doesn’t actually want the usual three wishes.

But more unexpectedly, Neil Gaiman also sings. He gently croons a couple of arch songs, with FourPlay as his backing band. One is his own ‘I Google You’, which is the sort of thing I imagine Tom Lehrer writing now (if he hadn’t retired). Another is ‘Psycho’, which could be a Magnetic Fields ditty or possibly one by his wife, Amanda Palmer. But in fact, thanks to Google (what else), it turns out to a Leon Payne song, first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack. Elvis Costello has covered it too.

Afterwards: to the Phoenix pub in Cavendish Square for drinks until midnight, where I meet Tom with members of his new band, Spiderbites. Something the Edwards brothers have in common: we both shun our natural brown hair. Tom’s hair is now pink, while I’m freshly re-blonded.


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