Why I Didn’t Write

I’ve left this online diary go fallow for too long, with the last update in October 2020. Some sort of explanation is warranted.

In George Orwell’s essay Why I Write (1946), he boils down his motivation for writing to four desires:

  1. Sheer egoism. The desire to seem clever, to be talked about and remembered after death.

Until January 2022, I was working on a PhD in English and Humanities. I was paid full-time by the UK government to do this from 2019 to 2021. The PhD was my day job, and had to take priority over any other writing. Any desire to seem clever was therefore spoken for.

As for any desire to be talked about or remembered after death, that waned. With the pandemic causing a surge in online self-presentation for all, I became all too aware how much I’d failed to elevate my voice above the crowd of Instagrammers, YouTubers, Twitchers, and Tweeters, all broadcasting the scrolling minutiae of their lives to the world. It’s all diary writing of a kind.

By late 2020 I had spent twenty-three years writing the diary, posting millions of words and keeping them all online in a searchable archive. But I still couldn’t get enough donations from readers to make the diary pay. I have to accept that I’m a niche ‘content provider’ – and that’s putting it nicely.

The egoism is starting to return now, however. The PhD is finished, and I continue to exist. So I need to write.

One remaining ambition is to publish books. I’m more fascinated with printed books as objects than ever: their offline quality, their calm immersion, their freedom from pop-up adverts for Volvos.

  1. Aesthetic enthusiasm. The desire to take pleasure from the firmness of good prose.

Orwell’s essay goes on to include his remark about prose needing to be plain and unembellished in its style. That there should be nothing between the words and the reader: ‘good prose is like a window pane’.

The thing is, some of us like a bit of stained glass from time to time.

The PhD made me so sensitive to bad writing that it put me off writing anything new myself. But that’s over now. I’m now back in the mindset where I know what I like, and want to make more of it.

  1. Historical impulse. The desire to find out facts and to store them for the use of posterity.

I switched to Twitter and Instagram for the desire to ‘store’ the facts of my life. This was a combination of laziness and loneliness. The need for ‘Likes’ and the sense of an instant audience can be powerful. But it’s a false satisfaction. My idea of hell would be a tweet going viral. I’d hate to be famous for writing a tweet. I should return to the diary for that reason alone.

  1. Political purpose. The desire to push the world in a certain direction.

I do believe in trying to change the world for the better, particularly in the sense of promoting imagination, literacy, difference, wit, art, and intelligence, over, say, violence, conformity, exploitation, and thuggery. This urge left me during the depths of the pandemic, when the ability to ‘push the world’ felt secondary to the need to prevent the spread of Covid. I became downright paranoid about the virus, as the following new diary entries will demonstrate. 

* *

24 October 2020. I pass a loud young couple on Tottenham Court Road. They’re dressed in punkish alternative wear: black t-shirts, black jeans, Goth hair (or as they say now, Emo hair). They are singing a mantra in the faces of passers-by, to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’: ‘You can stick your Covid tyranny up your arse’. The couple are obviously walking home from one of the regular Saturday protests by the anti-vaxxer brigade. Except that these two are young, as opposed to the more typical conspiracy theorists, who tend to be greying and Gandalf-like. With young people, all rebellion is the same and all rebellion is good.

* *

29 Oct 2020. On the tube. Everyone is meant to wear a face mask, but the last carriage of an Overground train tends to be the Noses Out zone. The lads zone. Like the back of the bus.

* *

30 Oct 2020. Eating by myself at the Plough pub near the British Museum:

* *

31 Oct 2020. Desperate for somewhere of my own to work, I am lent by Birkbeck the use of a tutor’s office. It’s on the second floor of 47 Gordon Square. The Ginger Jules café in the square provides takeaway soup. My view from the window must be more or less the same view the young Virginia Woolf would have been used to when she lived there:

* *

16 November 2020. It feels like we’re past the End Times and into the blooper reel.

* *

23 November 2020. I am interviewed via email by a writer researching the Sarah Records music scene, of the early 90s. I have to apologise to her about the scantiness of my recollections. At this point my mind is entirely dominated with the world of my thesis: the life and work of Ronald Firbank and the history of camp in fiction. I feel I’m too steeped in my present to access my own past. It’s like stopping halfway through lunch to discuss breakfast.

* *

29 November 2020. I watch the film Happiest Season, a glossy Christmas romcom aimed at the mainstream Love Actually market, but with young lesbians as the leads. I think of Derek Jarman writing in his diary in 1993 about appearing on the Channel 4 special, Camp Christmas: ‘The depths of our dislike for this family event was hardly disguised. It’s not easy for gay people to enjoy Christmas, the two don’t mix’. Perhaps the mainstream hype over Happiest Season is a sign that this is no longer the case.

* *

30 November 2020. I read an article from 1963 wherein Dennis Potter praises the very first series of Doctor Who. He calls the Tardis ‘a distinctly Marples-free machine’. It’s a topical reference to Ernest Marples, the Transport Minister at the time, who oversaw the Beeching cuts to the railways.

* *

2 December 2020. At this time of year I usually like to sit in the café next to the ice rink at Somerset House, just to enjoy the atmosphere. I never skate. This year there’s no skating. Instead the space is host to pricy transparent igloos, ‘dining pods’, for groups to hire, assuming they’re all in the same Covid ‘bubble’.

* *

7 December 2020. I go for a symptom-less Covid test at the former ULU in Malet St. There’s a row of white testing booths set up in the auditorium where they used to hold concerts. I first visited this room in 1989 or so, damaging my hearing to see groups like My Bloody Valentine and (the rather less noisy) They Might Be Giants. I feel relieved at the negative Covid result, but it does nothing to assuage the worry over how long this is going to continue.

* *

14 December 2020. It’s looking likely that there’s a second wave of the virus on the way. Mum and I call off meeting for Christmas. She says it’s the first time that she’ll be spending Christmas by herself in her whole life.

* *

19 December 2020. With my Covid paranoia sky-high, I look at ads for single flats and bedsits. Just one day looking is enough to turn one into an extreme Marxist, such is the greed on view.

* *

21 December 2020. Thanks to Bibi Lynch on Twitter I find a small bedsit in Angel, off the Liverpool Road. It’s within walking distance of Birkbeck and the British Library. A Christmas delivery.


24 December 2020. I move to Angel on Christmas Eve, with all the pleasing connotations of the Nativity. I unpack my library, feeling like Walter Benjamin, except with more plastic laundry bags, the zip-up kind with a plaid pattern. I buy a dozen from a pound-shop on the Kingsland Road. This is a tip from none other than Alex Kapranos, of the band Franz Ferdinand. If you have to move house on a budget, and you have no sturdy boxes, the bags are perfect.

* *

26 December 2020. Eating Roses chocolates. I find Celebrations too butch, Quality Street too post-colonial.

* *

8 January 2021. A new lockdown begins. London has been declared a ‘major incident’. In the infinite Sainsbury’s on Liverpool Road there’s still many people with no masks. Salad days for the paranoid.

* *

21 January 2021. I prefer the earlier, funnier lockdowns.

* *

25 January 2021. My review of It’s A Sin, the new TV series: It’s Alright.

* *

1 February 2021. With so many people working from home and communicating via video call software like Zoom, one question is how to present oneself onscreen. A common background is a set of bookshelves. It’s been reported that used bookshops have done well out of the pandemic, with the well-off hastily buying books in bulk, purely for this decorative purpose. To paraphrase Anthony Powell, books do furnish a Zoom.

* *

4 February 2021. I find myself increasingly irritated by memoirs, which I find, paradoxically, too fictional. William Burroughs on Paul Bowles’s memoir, Without Stopping: ‘It should have been called Without Telling’. Many memoirs are essentially the same book: ‘I once had a hard time but I’m now fine and I’m using this to build a brand’. Exceptions being The Naked Civil Servant, last line ‘I crawl towards my grave…’ Except that too built a brand. The most truthful opening line is Viv Albertine’s: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke’.

* *

5 February 2021. Hate having to write a short biography to go with a piece of writing. What counts? The form tempts parody:

‘He divides his time between Paris and Rome. Which are his pet names for the bed and the fridge’.

‘He has been a Writer In Residence. By writing in his residence’.

* *

10 March 2021. I finish the first draft of the thesis, after three and a half years of work. Now editing. It’s far too long to be submitted, at 108 thousand words. The maximum allowed for a thesis is 100k.

* *

14 March 2021. A sticker for Twitter: ‘this machine kills nuance’.

Also, the first rule of Twitter: if something can be taken the wrong way, it will be taken the wrong way.

* *

9 April 2021. Prince Philip dies. His one entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Quotations is the ‘slitty-eyed’ comment.  

*  *

14 April 2021. I receive my first dose of a Covid vaccine. This takes place at the Business Design Centre in Islington, Upper Street, a huge Victorian brick building which once hosted the first Crufts. The vaccine recipients are marshalled into a series of snaking queues, outside and inside the building. We are all socially distanced, and everyone is in face coverings. There’s some live music as we wait: a young man sits in a corner playing soothing jazz improvisations on an electric guitar. Islington in a nutshell.

* *

22 April 2021. An excited email from an academic friend who has just discovered that I was in the 90s band Orlando. He is now accusing me of ‘keeping that quiet’.

* *

27 April 2021. I do hope what makes Boris J go is his wallpaper, if only for the Wildean connotations.

* *

1 May 2021. I visit Islington Council’s South Library on Essex Road, the red-brick branch where Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were caught customising the covers of library books. Today South Library doesn’t stock any of Orton’s own books but it does use his name in its publicity for the building’s centenary. Orton is officially the most interesting thing to happen to that library. And they put him in jail.

* *

6 May 2021. I vote at Thornhill Primary School, Thornhill Road, N1, in the mayoral elections. As I make my mark in the booth with the usual stubby pencil on the usual piece of card, a teacher outside in the playground swings a hand bell to signal the next class. Both practices remain unchanged in decades.

* *

18 May 2021. Drinking in Fitzrovia means you risk overhearing film & TV people saying things like ‘the DP was a legend’.

* *

5 June 2021. On Saturdays in London, one thinks of Quentin Crisp’s remark that protest is a game any number can play. Today, walking around central London, I am collared by anti-vaxxers (aggressive), eco warriors (civil), and Free Julian Assange activists (feral).

* *

13 June 2021. Walking along Upper Street on a hot day, I am the only man in trousers rather than shorts. If nothing else, I supply punctuation.

* *

2 September 2021. Shanthi S marks my 50th birthday with a meal at Le Sacre Coeur, Theberton Street.

* *

3 September 2021. I spend my actual birthday visiting St Leonards-on-Sea and Hastings. Royal Victoria Hotel for afternoon tea. I eye the flats of Marine Court, the 1930s block that’s modelled on the Queen Mary ocean liner, with the same yearning as I do the ones in the Barbican.

* *

4 September 2021. A boozy night at Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill. Sophie Parkin makes me an impromptu birthday cake. It’s also the birthday of the fashion designer Roberta (on Instagram at  @gownsbyroberta). We have a joint photo:

* *

29 September 2021. I submit the PhD thesis and start revising for the exam.

* *  

20 November 2021. I start writing occasional reviews for The Wire again.

* *

7 December 2021. My PhD examination (the ‘viva voce’). Result: Pass with Minor Corrections. My examiners are Joseph Bristow and Kirsten MacLeod. I have until early January to resubmit with the corrections. The exam is via video call, but I’m at 46 Gordon Square, 1st floor, once home to the Bloomsbury Group, which pleases me immensely.

* *

24 December 2021. Christmas with Mum in Suffolk.

* *

8 January 2022. I resubmit the thesis with the corrections.

* *

19 January 2022. Officially notified by Birkbeck of my PhD award. I’m now allowed to call myself Dr Edwards.

* *

31 January 2022. Current activity: applying for grants to write an academic book based on the thesis. Going to seminars on CVs and careers. Also sending out book proposals: one for an experimental monograph-cum-memoir, one for a novel.

It turns out that getting a paid job after doing an English PhD is even harder than doing an English PhD.

* *

18 February 2022. My thesis, ‘Ronald Firbank and the Legacy of Camp Modernism’, is now online at Birkbeck’s online library. It’s available for anyone in the world to download, and for free, and is indexed by Google:


I still want to turn the thesis into a printed book, but my honour is satisfied in terms of getting the research out there. There are still thousands of words left out, though, which I need to turn into articles. A whole section on Anthony Powell, for instance.

* *

28 March 2022. I review the new Soft Cell album for the Wire, which includes their collaboration with Pet Shop Boys. The continuing creativity of both groups is inspirational when considering my own aging body and wondering what best to do with it. Sparks even more so: now in their 70s, putting out manifestly brilliant work like their 2020 album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.

* *

24 April 2022. A kind reader of the thesis sends me £50 out of the blue, knowing as they do the difficulties in getting paid for academic writing. It’s the three boxes to tick: getting paid to do what one is good at, getting paid to do what one enjoys, and getting paid enough to live on, modestly but autonomously. It’s the third box that’s still elusive.

* *

3 May 2022. My PhD graduation ceremony at Senate House. Mum attends, up from Suffolk. Dame Joan Bakewell, the college President, gives a speech. The ceremony has a little bit of extra business for the PhD graduates: they have to kneel on a padded wooden frame while the Master of Birkbeck puts a sash-style hood over them. The hood represents the PhD itself. Then the candidate arises, symbolically transformed into a Doctor of Philosophy. PhDs also wear soft Tudor-style caps rather than mortar boards.

This is Birkbeck’s first ceremony in person since the pandemic. No social distancing or mandatory masks. The audience of graduates and their proud relations packs out the hall on the ground floor. One change, however, is the omission of the traditional handshake with the Master. Today a nod suffices.

My diploma arrives by registered post a few days later. With that, my ten years at Birkbeck as a mature student are finally done: BA, MA, and now PhD. The ‘triple’, as it’s called.

* *

8 June 2022. I spend the weeks after graduation being the most sociable I’ve been since the pandemic began. I meet friends and go to the cinema. And then, perhaps inevitably, I get Covid. It lasts the best part of 14 days. Fever for the first four days, then it feels like a heavy cold afterwards, though with an added unfamiliar fuzziness.

* *

6 July 2022. One of my applications meets with success. Birkbeck has now conferred a new title on me: Associate Research Fellow in the School of Arts (Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing). Starting October 2022 and lasting a year. The title is an unpaid affiliation role, though I am rewarded with a staff ID card, a staff email address and full library access. In return, I’ll be expected to contribute to the department’s research activity on a light basis. It’ll be good to have a sense of belonging, and to have something to point to while I’m looking for the next thing.

* *

19 July 2022. I win Birkbeck’s Margaret Elise Harkness Fellowship Prize, for my research into Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. It’s my fourth prize at the college, following one in 2014 for my work on the Saint Etienne film Finisterre, one in 2015 for getting the highest grade in my year for the BA English course, and one in 2017 for getting the highest grade on the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course. It’s a nice thing for my student years to go out on, not least because it comes with £2000 (though I have to wait until late August to actually receive the cash).

* *

28 July 2022. Still looking for a regular source of income. The Job Centre are about to put me on their mandatory Restart Scheme. All job adverts ask the same question: ‘can you pretend to be normal?’

Today I have an intense panic attack after hours spent clicking through an interminable application form for a university post. It asks me to provide ten supporting statements. I eventually abandon the application altogether, all enthusiasm quashed. All I want to do is to earn a living wage doing something that doesn’t hurt too much.

What keeps me going? A belief that, contrary to what the job market implies, difference is an asset, not an obstacle. That, and the conviction that my best work is still ahead of me. The Harkness prize certainly helps, too. Money isn’t everything, but it is one way of telling people what sort of work they are good at, and what sort of work they should keep doing.

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Summer Distortion

Thursday 10 August 2017. Tobi H visits from New York, friends Kyle and Caroline in tow, and we have a heady night out at the Ku bar in Soho. Tobi stays the night. A rare spike in the otherwise sparse history of my love life. At least, since the Tories got in.


Friday 11 Aug 2017.  To the Rio for a screening of 1991: The Year Punk Broke, accompanied by Kath G, Shanthi and Paul. A live band goes on first: Skinny Girl Diet. Two young women, guitar and drums only. Lights up throughout, audience all seated. This might diminish the rock gig effect, but it does show off the Rio’s Art Deco architecture.

I still enjoy much of the music from the film: the pre-Britpop wave of American grunge bands all signing to major labels. Hence the title, implying that the footage represents a version of the punk spirit ‘breaking’ into the mainstream. It’s mostly footage of Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana touring European festivals in the summer of the year in question, just before the release of Nevermind. Thurston Moore’s larking about to the camera turns him from ice-cool poet to brattish irritant. At one point he lets the camera film him using and flushing a backstage toilet: a dangerous taunt for critics. Well, ‘Teenage Riot’ still astonishes. The other three of Sonic Youth come out better: the drummer is a virtuoso in any genre.

Kim Gordon has the same invulnerable charisma as Stevie Nicks, then as now. To be worshipped so much for so long takes a large amount of nerve, so it helps to be American. As ever, there’s an element of timing, of a vacancy being filled. Role models, like ideas, depend on the right historical moment. The Stone Roses saw that their generation needed a Beatles, and filled the vacancy out of sheer arrogance. They got away with worse than murder: they got away with laziness. And still the worship came, because the need for new gods is too powerful. On the canal down the road, a gallery sells prints of Stone Roses photographs for £720 each.

In the 1991 film, Babes in Toyland sound like the noisiest group on earth. That was the ‘punk’ aspect of the music: certain noise settings on guitar pedals, sonic distortion as the creation of new space. And Nirvana: then on the cusp of global domination, the footage now imbued with inevitable gravitas. The young man in pain, the noise of fame and suicide still in the future, now helplessly distorting the past.


Saturday 12 Aug 2017. With Tobi and co once more, this time to the club night Pink Glove. It’s walking distance for me: the Victoria pub off Dalston Lane. Named after the Pulp song, it’s a gay indie night where the bulk of the music is vintage alternative: 80s and 90s. I have to explain who Pulp are – or were – to my American friends. Were they the wrong kind of British, compared to Oasis, or just too arch? No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’ comes on, and I remember it as the theme from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. This in turn points out how these kind of club nights are school reunions of a kind for me too. I worry about wallowing in the past: how soon is now? And yes, they play that too.

Perhaps when I’m finally satisfied with the present I’ll be fine about the past.

I part company with the Younger Americans and walk alone up Kingsland Road. Saturday night, 3AM. Little silver canisters all over the pavement, beneath the rising tower of the luxury flats at Dalston Kingsland station. The canisters are to do with drugs, though legal. Today’s drug of choice is nitrous oxide. Laughing gas. How else to react to the times?

Two drunk women sidestep into my path. Here we go.

‘We just want to say… You really look like… Will Ferrell.’

Well it’s preferable to ‘Oi, Donald Trump!’ heard on the escalator at Euston a few weeks ago.

Then they let me pass. I go home.


Thursday 17 Aug 2017: I see The Big Sick at the Rio. Terrible title, but an excellent comedy about the culture clash. Though it has that Judd Apatow trait of going on too long. Also an indication of the mainstream American knowledge of Pakistani culture, or the lack of it: it’s as if all those 80s British films – My Beautiful Laundrette and so on – never happened. Is America thirty years behind in the cultural awareness stakes? Don’t answer that. The film has a very good joke about 9/11 which probably had to wait till 2017 to be allowed in. Not too soon any more, not now.


Struggling with the dissertation for the MA (Contemporary Literature and Culture, Birkbeck). 15,000 words, titled ‘Music and Belonging in Alan Hollinghurst’. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in, except that I’ve never written 15,000 words about anything before.

The other three students in my summer ‘Study Buddies’ group are doing class in contemporary Indian novels, female villains in X-Men comics, and the environmental anxieties behind Godzilla films.

I have a complete lack of motivation at this point. The question keeps coming: is this really the best thing I should be doing with my summer, with my time, with my life, at this age? So hard to know. Right now I have a feeling of being utterly out of the swim of society. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Society and I exist in mutual suspicion.

Not earning an income is unavoidably troubling, though. People in their forties are meant to have a fair amount of spending money – almost by way of compensation. I see friends going on foreign trips to festivals and big concerts and West End plays, and I admit I’m envious. But this is to make the mistake of comparing myself with others. I soon remember how ill-suited I am to so many normal jobs, and how I wouldn’t last. What am I suited to, now, today? Writing, editing, research, and (hopefully) lecturing. I’ve now clocked up six years studying English literature at graduate and post-graduate levels, and on top of all that I have my long experience of life in the real world before. That has to count for something. But – oh, one’s moods are all over the place.


Wednesday 30th August 2017. Saturation coverage of the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. As notable deaths from the summer of 1997 go, I’m thinking more about William Burroughs and Jeffrey Bernard. Princesses for the wrong kind of people.

The blameless subject of my dissertation, Alan Hollinghurst, puts out a new novel only every 6 or 7 years. The latest one, The Sparsholt  Affair is due out later this year, three weeks after my dissertation deadline. Happily, today I acquire an advance proof courtesy of a kind person at Pan MacMillan. If nothing else, the dissertation will be right up to date.


Thursday 31st August 2017. Richard Smith dies. In the 90s he was the main British music critic to specialise in gay perspectives, albeit with a provocative agenda. Cheeky, bitchy, and sometimes downright cruel, he was nevertheless kind to my own bands. Orlando and Fosca had rave reviews from him in Gay Times.

Mr Smith’s review of the first Fosca album was entirely made up of quotes from the lyrics sheet. I suppose I could have invoiced him. But I suspect he thought I’d be amused or flattered or both. He was quite right.

RS was one of those few journalists whose work you could actually identify without consulting the byline. Today, despite all the emphasis on ‘building your brand’, so many journalists strive to be exactly the same as each other. That dreaded contemporary acronym, FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is really a version of TOSO – Terrified of Standing Out. What I suppose I’m saying is that I think most journalists are a bunch of TOSOs.


Saturday 1st September 2017. A better day: I finish another chapter of the dissertation.


Saturday 2nd September. Mum visits, and I show her around my new stomping ground. We start off with the trendy Café Route in the core of the current gentrification, Dalston Square. This is followed by the Curve Garden, Café Oto and the Arcola Theatre – all part of the New Dalston spirit – and then we hit the Babel intensity of Kingsland High Street. Here, Old Dalston bumps along with the new:  multi-cultural, multi-income, multi-desperation, multi-sanity. In such streets is the true flavour of the metropolis, where everyone, even the mad, seems aglow with purpose.

Then north on the bus to Stoke Newington, with its more Richard Curtis-sy style of London. We see the beautiful fallow deer in Clissold Park, and the umpteen trendy cafes in Church Street, including one whose name is the chemical formula for caffeine. Then back south to the canal in Haggerston, where we walk along to the towpath to Islington.

I’m audibly aware of the presence of rich people who sit drinking wine on many of the boats, Eton accents broadcasting across the canal. But then one feels that about London full stop: the danger of it becoming a playground for the rich. Thankfully, people are starting to ask questions about what London is actually for, so one remains optimistic. The Arcola Theatre has Pay What You Can days for its plays.


Sunday 3rd September 2017. My 46th birthday. Ms G my landlady says ‘Happy birthday!’ in the hallway. Well, I have to spend another day in the library. Have to. I battle stomach pains (seeing doctors about this) and wrestle not very happily with the dissertation.


Monday 4th September 2017. Finish Chapter 1 and write 1000 new words for Chapter 4.

Thoughts on books as objects. I’m shopping for a new mp3 player, and become increasingly bad tempered with the dominance and cost of Apple products. I settle for a SanDisk Clip Jam, only to find out that it cannot play the audiobooks I bought off iTunes. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to spend the equivalent sum on print books. Books are cheap, calming, offline machines. And they actually belong to you after you’ve bought them. If a house is a machine for living in, a book is a machine for living.


Tuesday 5 September 2017. To Barberette in Hackney Downs to have my roots done. It’s a gender-neutral, bohemian-friendly, affordable hairdresser’s. Pictures on the wall of David Bowie in the 70s and Agyness Deyn in the 2000s. I ask for a bleached ‘do that somehow looks contemporary but without a ‘fade’, the current name for shaving the sides. Style, not fashion.

Today I somehow manage to have my hair bleached and cut and still find time to write over 1000 words on the dissertation. I think this is called ‘putting a spurt on’.


Wednesday 6th September 2017. An unexpected present from Liz at the London Library, who’s leaving: Woolf’s Writer’s Diary, the beautiful Persephone edition. Lots of words in there about persisting when the spirit sags, of course.

Evening: a Study Buddies meeting, with fellow Birkbeck MA students Craig, Jassy and Hafsa. I’ve found that this really helps. Our first meetings were simply ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions: an enforced two hours of silent writing in exam conditions, broken into four 25-minute bursts. For the last fortnight, we meet up and pass around chapters of our work, adding proofreading and presentational suggestions, while being careful not to cross over into the realms of collusion (of which there’s strict rules). Most of it is about getting the wording of references and footnotes right.

The sessions have really helped alleviate the sense of being cut adrift. In my case, it triggers a healthy burst of productivity. In short, it gives me a kick up the bum. I suppose it’s why people still go to offices to work. Procrastination is site-specific.


Saturday 9th September 2017. Finish reading The Sparsholt Affair, just in time for the dissertation.


Monday 11 Sept 2017. Finish the cuts on Draft 1. Straight onto Draft 2. Write the abstract and the acknowledgements.

Each draft takes a lot less time than the one before. I make dramatic cuts to Draft 1 to fit the word count, and then by Draft 4 it’s really just pedantic polishing. That’s the hope, anyway.

Tuesday 12th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 2. I note the term ‘androcentric’ for Hollinghurst’s novels (used by my supervisor Joe B). It means male-focused, but in a more aesthetic and less pejorative way than ‘phallocentric’. The latter tends to have overtones of masculine repression. ‘Androcentric’ is also perfect for describing Christopher Nolan’s films.

Wednesday 13th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 3. Evening: drinks with the three Study Buddies at the College Arms, Store Street, Bloomsbury. They’ve all finished and delivered their dissertations. I’ve been granted the option of a two week extension, because of my dyslexia. Except that my competitive urge has now kicked in, and I want to prove I can make the normal deadline after all. That, and the fact that I could really do with a break before the PhD starts in early October.


Thursday 14 September 2017. I work like mad. Finish Draft 4.


Friday 15th September 2017. Up at 5am to maximise working time. Finish Draft 5, and hand in the MA dissertation on time by noon. So I make the proper deadline after all. One copy is uploaded electronically, then I have to print out two copies using the college printers, get them bound at Ryman’s, and post them into the big slot in the wall at Birkbeck’s School of Arts reception, 43 Gordon Square. All done. I’ll receive the grade for the whole MA around early December.

After sending the thing off, I now realise I should have included Debbie Smith and Atalanta Kernick in the acknowledgements. It was their 45th birthday present to me, the Carl Wilson book Let’s Talk About Love, that inspired the whole theme of the dissertation.


Saturday 23 September 2017. To Brighton for the weekend. An impulsive treat for myself, aimed at creating something vaguely in the way of a holiday. I’m trying to mark the small gap of time between the end of my MA (15 September) and the start of my PhD (5 Oct).  Too poor to go abroad (haven’t done so in 8 years), but I always like Brighton.

There’s a visible increase in rough sleepers on the pavement, especially around the station. But then it’s the same in London. Inequality has never had it so good.

I stay at the decrepit and shambling Royal Albion Hotel. This is partly because I prefer a Shining-esque labyrinthine hotel to a B&B or a boutique one, but mostly because every other large hotel in Brighton is booked up, thanks to the Labour conference. Large hotels, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald on parties, are so intimate. At small hotels there isn’t any privacy.

Evening: attend Simon Price’s 50th birthday party, held across two floors at the Latest bar in Brighton’s Manchester Street. I chat to Taylor Parkes, Seaneen, Emma and Adrian, and Toby Amies (whose film The Man Whose Mind Exploded I absolutely love ). Simon P tells me how he still regards the Orlando album, Passive Soul, as a classic.

Withstand the less welcome attentions of drunk people I don’t really know, though one of them says:

‘I’ve just got to say who you remind me of’

‘Go on then.’

‘David Sylvian’.

‘Oh, that’s a comparison I actually quite like.’

It’s the second 50th birthday party I’ve been to, and I notice a common feature of such events. There’s a projected slideshow on the wall of photos from the host’s past. I’d previously thought such projections were only for funerals. But I suppose it’s a use of photography to defy death, or possibly to help prevent early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Mr Price puts on a good party: a free vegan buffet, two floors for dancing or chatting. I drink too much red wine (ruining my throat for two days), talk rubbish, and stay too late. Taylor P shows me a photo of his son, who like all ten-year-old boys looks a bit like the left-wing commentator Owen Jones.

Lots of Eighties pop music plays on the dancefloor, just as it did when I first met Simon P in the 90s. The Eighties haven’t aged a bit.


Sunday 24 September 2017. I walk around the seafront in my black suit (slightly too cold for the white one), bumping into Seaneen again – this time with her child. Huge banners on the centre next to the Grand: ‘FOR THE MANY’.

One new sight on the beach is the ‘i360’ tower, a heavily-branded attempt by British Airways to duplicate the success of the London Eye. Instead of a wheel of transparent pods, it’s a single oval capsule that goes up and down a central cylinder for no very good reason. A Space Needle and Thread, as it were. It’s right by the wreck of the old West Pier. As I pass I see that the ride is offering 10% off for Labour delegates. There’s also a wicker basket champagne stall on the way in. A comment suggests itself about champagne socialism and looking down on people, but I’m too hungover to make it.


Wednesday 27th September 2017. Evening: to the Prince Charles Cinema with Tim Chipping for Oxide Ghosts, a film of out-takes of the 1997 Chris Morris TV series, Brass Eye. It’s made and presented in person by the Brass Eye director, Michael Cumming. Cumming turns out to be a boyish, rather Terry Gilliam-like maverick, slouching in baseball cap and ripped shirt sleeves.

Although the Prince Charles is packed with cult comedy fans, Cumming is clearly a fan of Brass Eye himself. He delights in Morris’s unique similes and malapropisms, quoting them constantly and calling his explanation of references in the credits as ‘trainspotting’ on his part. There’s even some footage of Cumming unlocking dusty crates of his own VHS tapes, as if chancing upon the Ark of the Covenant.

This is something that Tim and I discuss before the screening when talking about our own records. How proud are you allowed to be of your own work? There’s the common response of saying that you haven’t looked at your work for decades, but there’s some vanity in this too, of course. Humility can be a brand-building strategy – ‘he’s just like us!’ Self-mythologizing, meanwhile, can be more honest. A form of un-false modesty. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the art has the last word, while the humans and their vanities come and go. The blooper sections are droll enough, but it’s the cut sections of whole ideas that make Oxide Ghosts worthwhile. ‘Just give us more to see’, sings Dot in Sunday in the Park With George. 

Chris Morris is still as careful to control his work as ever, and has only given his blessing to this film on the understanding that it’s not to be made available in any other format. I understand that this is partly for rights reasons – always a nightmare – but it’s also to make the event a bit more special. To see the film, you have to attend one of Mr Cumming’s cinema screenings or nothing.

I’m reminded how Kate Bush declined to release a video recording of her Hammersmith comeback concerts after all. Both cases become protests against the assumption that live events are just YouTube content in waiting. But there’s some irony in this, given Oxide Ghosts’ reliance on archives. And indeed, here I am, mediating my memory of the evening in a public diary. That tension between wanting to record everything, and knowing that there will be always be distortion in doing so.


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The Hawks Of Stratford East

Saturday 30th August 2014. I’m reading a couple of 1950s novels, both dealing with issues of race. One is Doris Lessing’s Grass Is Singing, set among the white farmers of Southern Rhodesia, while the other is The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, about West Indian migrants adjusting to Britain. Lessing’s prose turns out to be up there with Orwell in its unadorned realism (no messing with Lessing), but it also has the seamless shift between perspectives that one finds in George Eliot. That said, the white characters get the lion’s share of the empathy. Selvon, meanwhile, manages to represent 1950s London entirely through a kind of Caribbean modernist patois, most impressively in a section which runs to ten pages without any punctuation. The only dashes are to indicate swearwords. I’d expected the scenes detailing the grimness of being a penniless immigrant, but hadn’t realised that there’d be so much broad comedy too. Despite all the poverty, the novel is ultimately a love letter to the city.

* * *

In the evening I go to the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, in the hope of seeing a new play, The Picture of John Gray by CJ Wilmann. It’s about the real life Gray who inspired Wilde’s Dorian. It’s had rave reviews. Too many as it turns out, because the show is sold out, it’s the last night, and there’s no returns on the door. So instead I treat myself to a solitary meal at The Gate, the vegetarian restaurant nearby. I’m annoyed that I can’t see the play, but cheered that fringe drama is evidently in good shape.

Watch Doctor Who. Rather silly goings-on which involve shrinking Mr Capaldi’s Doctor so he can be injected inside a Dalek. Not the most logical of stories, but it’s very visually impressive. There’s a nice spooky moment where the Doctor is swimming about in a kind of distorted slow-motion world, meant to represent the Dalek’s eye.

* * *

Sunday 31st August 2014. To the Royal Albert Hall foyer, to look at the Peter Blake mural there, ‘Appearing at the Royal Albert Hall’. It’s a variation on his Sgt Pepper album sleeve, being a montage of photos of about 350 people who’ve performed at the venue, all jostling together in a crowd. Some are in black and white, including the Beatles and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s a Dalek (presumably from the Doctor Who Proms), and the main boyband of today, One Direction. I think the photos also indicate the age of the performers at the time they appeared there: the Monkees look much older than their 1960s heyday, and are minus Mike Nesmith, who I know didn’t join in with their reunion tours. So that would suggest the first Albert Hall show by the Monkees was fairly recent.

* * *

I do some studying in Swiss Cottage library, which is open on Sundays. At one point a middle-aged man wanders past, talking to himself while staring at the bookshelves. ‘I can assure you the Americans are on the moon,’ he says. ‘What are we doing about it?’ He says this quite loudly and clearly, with a well-spoken accent. Then he moves on.

I dip into Peter Nichols’s memoir, Feeling You’re Behind. He’s honest about his envy of other playwrights’ success, particularly those who, like him, were living in Bristol in the 1960s. Funny how rivalry often involves shared locations as much as shared generations. Tom Stoppard’s stardom is one of those he resents, though he adds ‘he was already a star on Blackboy Hill’. Reading this today, I remember that I once met Stoppard’s Bristol landlady, when I lived there in the early 1990s. She lived in Clifton, and indeed close to Blackboy Hill, and had an old photograph of him framed in her living room, looking like a fifth Beatle.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd September 2014. A letter from Tobi H in New York. He thinks I should move there.  ‘You’re just too British to stay in England.’

* * *

To mark the opening of its new branch in St Pancras International, Hatchards have installed some display cases by the Eurostar arrival gates. They tell the history of the main Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, and include artefacts from past book signings. This means that one of the first things people arriving in Britain will see is a large ashtray once used by Bette Davis.

* * *

Wednesday 3rd September 2014. My 43rd birthday.

Where does the time go? On the internet.

I chat to Mum on the phone, then head off to do my usual birthday task. I like to celebrate that I still have working eyes and legs (what else is a birthday but a celebration of a still-working body?). So I try to go somewhere I’ve not been before, to treat my eyes to new sights, and my legs to new terrains. It needn’t even be outside London.

Today I visit the newly-opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, being the site of the Olympic Games in 2012. I’d kept clear of the Games while they were on, but was always keen to visit the actual site. So I take the High Speed train from St Pancras, and arrive just after noon. A dry, sunny day. I take in the Meccano-like ArcelorMittal Orbit watchtower, as designed by Anish Kapoor, go on a boat trip up the River Lea (the tour guide is a charming older lady, ‘born and bred in the East End’), then I wander around the fresh new parklands and wetlands of the area. Even though there’s plenty of other visitors (lots of East London families and pensioners), it’s incredibly tranquil and pleasant. All the garish branding of the Games has been stripped away – no more McDonalds logos. Just lots of new grass, wildflowers, waterways and ponds. There’s also lots of public art (I like the circle of mirrored columns in Victory Park), and there’s a scattering of tasteful kiosks and cafes. It’s a perfect place to spend a birthday, in fact: old material renewed for the future.

Small children in swimsuits splash around the snake-shaped fountain by the base of the Orbit, where the water jets sprout from the pavement one by one. Such a simple way to keep small children happy on a warm day. The Orbit turns out to have its own patrolling hawks: I meet one of them on the gloved arm of a chatty gentleman by the entrance. From him I learn two things: 1) the colour red is particularly attractive to pigeons, and 2) nothing keeps pigeons off a huge red sculpture like the presence of a hawk.

A lift takes one up to the tower’s two 360 degree observation decks – one has to walk under a very Kapoor-looking funnel first. There’s a couple of long distorted mirrors on the top deck (more Kapoor ideas), offering an upside-down view of the skyline. The lower deck comes with high-definition zoom screens to identity the sights. I manage to locate Highgate Hill, seven miles away, by looking for the distinctive green dome of the Catholic church. I’ve often been able to see the Orbit all the way from Highgate High Street, so it’s satisfying to see this view in reverse. I also look into the Olympic stadium next door, currently closed and back to being a building site: nothing to see but cranes and forklifts. I learn that it’s being given a new roof, and that it will then serve as a ground for West Ham, while also hosting various athletics events.

A bit of drama in the Orbit view today, too: flames and black smoke are visible from a tower block, a few miles to the south. The staff pass around binoculars. One particularly bored staffer sings ‘London’s Burning’ over and over again, until his colleagues tell him to stop. I later find out that the fire is actually in Bermondsey, in Surrey Quays Road. No injuries, and it’s all put out by 4pm. Barely makes the local news. Still, it’s fairly alarming to watch at the time, and from such a vantage point.

I take the optional staircase back down. It runs around the whole tower inside its own tunnel. Every ten steps is punctuated with speakers, playing noises recorded at places like Borough Market, local football matches, and at the building site for the stadium.

* * *

In the evening: to the Odeon BFI Imax to see Lucy. Scarlett Johansson once again stars as a non-human. This time she’s a woman who accidentally becomes super-intelligent, but the transformation is progressive, and she has hours left to live. The film doesn’t hang about either: the entire future of mankind is done and dusted in about 90 minutes. The man who wrote, produced and directed the film is Luc Besson, which makes it not just comic book fun, but bande dessinée fun – it’s easy to imagine it drawn by Milo Manara. He even sets the finale in Paris, purely to stuff it with car chases and shoot-outs for no very good reason. It’s an outrageous film, frankly, but its sheer abandon carries me away. Luc Besson is 55. I may not quite share his aesthetics, but his sheer energy and nerve is a good thing for a fortysomething’s birthday.

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The Villa Chernobyl

Weds 29 August: with Shanthi Sivansen to the Haymarket Odeon, to see Take This Waltz. Very much a film to see with a person of the opposite gender for the conversation afterwards. I think the male roles in the love triangle are deliberately underwritten, in order to properly focus on the feelings of the main character, played by Michelle Williams. Somewhere between indulgence and catharsis – and it just about works.

Here’s a photo of Ms S and myself taken a few weeks ago, when we saw another US indie relationship three-hander flick, Your Sister’s Sister (also very enjoyable). This was in Bradley’s Bar in Hanway Street, at a point where I’m probably about to fall over.

Thurs 30 August: To the Ketchum Pleon building in Folgate St for the private view of Sadie Lee’s Transformers show. Large portraits of people like Holly Woodlawn, David Hoyle and Rita Tushingham. Her subjects are often aging, but with their lined faces used in a sense of queer defiance, a little in the spirit of Derek Jarman (of which more below).

Fri 31st August: Seaneen Molloy’s and Robert V’s wedding reception, at The Cambria in darkest Camberwell. Many old faces there too. I overdid the drinking on Thursday, and feel bad that I am not on sparkling form for the reception. I have to learn – I can only cope with one big night out a week, alcohol wise. Highlight for me: Seaneen singing the Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book Of Love’.

Sunday Sept 2nd: Scones at High Tea with Ella Lucas. Ella gives me a lovely birthday present – a pair of seahorse cufflinks. I have my hair cut and re-bleached. Far too short as usual, which makes me think of a line in a Wendy Cope poem somewhere… ‘husbands coming back from the hairdressers looking like convicts’.


Monday Sept 3rd:

Like my 40th, I spend my 41st birthday on another day trip to somewhere I’ve not been before, giving my eyes new sights to see.

I wanted to go somewhere involving the sea, trains, history, inspiration, and where I could be back home by the evening. Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness was long overdue for me.

Over the past week I’ve been drinking deep from the life and work of Mr Jarman, particularly in book form: his diaries, his essays, and the excellent Tony Peake biography. From Jarman’s Kicking The Pricks, here he is buying the Dungeness cottage in the late 80s, during the height of paranoia over nuclear power stations:

‘I dreamt up a little lead-lined house, The Villa Chernobyl. A villa remote in time and space, visited by foolhardy adventures who braved the desert landscape for tea and scones.’

Reading the Peake biography, I’m fascinated by the way Jarman was not quite the revered icon I thought he was during his lifetime: even other gay activists gave him a hard time. That in 1991 he protested against Ian McKellen’s acceptance of a knighthood, as it looked like selling out to the government that had brought in Clause 28. The same year he called for a boycott of the Guardian after it ran an article about certain gay lifestyles being dangerous – even though it was written by an AIDS sufferer. It seems easy to forget that passions ran so high and so divisively in those years when the virus was new and seemingly unstoppable.

He says somewhere that one reason the Dungeness garden was his greatest hit, away from the films and books and paintings and music videos, was that it was ongoing, and therefore critic-proof. It was never properly a work on show. There was never a private view, a launch, a press release, a review copy. It was never officially open to the public, yet never officially not public (fishermen’s cottages rarely being fenced off, by design). It was just known to have begun.

People came to look at it first by accident, while exploring Dungeness. Then, as Jarman featured it in his books and in the film The Garden, it became an attraction. Much to his chagrin, he remarks the following while looking out the window and noticing people walking around in the garden:

‘Would it ever be possible for human beings to appear and improve the view?’

Still, in the preface to the posthumous book, Derek Jarman’s Garden, Jarman’s partner Keith Collins, says:

‘When you visit, tread softly, for many choose to live here for the solitude and silence that once attracted Derek, and now holds me.’

Today, Collins is still the current owner and gardener. There is a small sign on the front door, identifying the cottage as Jarman’s, and respectfully asking visitors to not look in the windows or take photographs for commercial use without permission.

The ‘solitude and silence’ is not much in evidence when I arrive, mind – daytrippers are everywhere, packing out the Light Railway Cafe, the Britannia Pub and the beach itself. There are a few other artist’s gardens in the area too. It’s not quite St Ives, but Mr J’s influence on the neighbouring huts is unmistakeable: wind-proof arrangements of found objects, carefully arranged in the shingle.


A day of different trains: Northern Line tube from Highgate to Kentish Town, short-cut overground rail to St Pancras, then High Speed state-of-the-art HS1 train to Folkestone, being the currently renamed ‘Javelin’ train due to it serving the Olympic Park at Stratford East. Then a 20 minute bus from Folkestone to Hythe, in order to take the 1920s miniature steam railway to Dungeness via New Romney. Thirteen and a half miles at over an hour. The fastest train in the country followed by what must be one of the slowest – and pleasingly so.


Though there’s no shortage of photographs online of Jarman’s cottage, I think I can add something rarer. A photo of Derek Jarman’s post box, on the road close to the cottage. It’s the only post box in Dungeness, and Jarman mentions it in his book on colour, Chroma, in the section on red. Its redness really does stand out in the landscape, too. In this pic you can just about make out the two lighthouses in the distance, either side of Mr J’s cottage, pictured here in the centre.

A day, then, of things I like at the age of 41: train trips, cafes, exploratory walks, beach vistas, flowers, places with creative history, and remote post boxes.

I make sure I use the post box, too: one aerogramme to Danika H in Australia, one postcard of an old Dungeness railway poster to Mum and Dad, another to Aunt Anne and Uncle Keith in St Ives. All written over a mug of tea with scampi and chips in the Light Railway Cafe, where Jarman used to have lunch. I take the last steam train of the day back to New Romney, then a bus to Ashford, and then the Javelin to home.


A woman at St Pancras stops me to compliment me on my seahorse brooch. And today I notice that, in the photos in the final collection of Jarman’s diaries, Smiling In Slow Motion, his partner Keith has a seahorse tattoo on his arm.

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Not The Dealer

Recent outings. Three birthday parties in London pubs, one for Mr Stephen Harwood (Browns, St Martin’s Lane), one for Ms Shanthi Sivanesen (The Duke, Roger Street), and one for  Ms Heather Malone (Big Red bar, Holloway Road).

At all three I notice I’ve cast myself yet again as the lone invitee who knows the birthday person but who doesn’t really know any of the other friends there. So I do wonder what the others think when I turn up and greet the birthday person affectionately, but politely wave and try to catch the names of everyone else. To this end, I’ve been sometimes mistaken for a boyfriend, or a hoped-for boyfriend. Though I’ve yet to be taken for that other role fitting such a position at parties – the birthday drug dealer.

Big Red in Holloway Road is a curious place. The decor is a kind of crossover rockabilly, heavy metal and Goth – black walls, low lights, barmaids in gingham and punkish hairdos. Two pinball machines: one based on the band Kiss, the other on Doctor Who. With Sylvester McCoy as the main Doctor.

In amongst this tattoo-compatible gloom, one rare source of brightness  is a small TV mounted high above the bar showing, inexplicably, a golf match.

Friday before last was an early evening event at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. Organised by Travis Elborough. I’m employed to do a spot of DJ-ing, Cathi Unsworth reads a short story of hers (Ms U being a Good Hair Author), and the band The Real Tuesday Weld – who once supported Fosca in Athens – play a set, starting with the singer and clarinettist performing on the open top deck of one of the vintage buses in the museum. Even better – the singer holds an umbrella. Their set is slightly curtailed by a power failure towards the end, and I’m now wondering if it’s to do with the use of an open umbrella indoors, thus invoking bad luck. Worth it for the bus top performance, though.

I get the impression the LTM is one of those word-of-mouth museums in London which more people really need to know about. Since it was revamped a few years ago, everyone I know who’s been sings its praises to the hilt. Favourite exhibit for me is the London Bus Conductor’s Dressing Mirror, with a list of cardinal London Transport rules from a time outworn printed along the side, such as ‘Always Be Clean Shaven’.

My DJ playlist:

Tom Lehrer – The Masochism Tango (single version)
Louis Armstrong – Mack The Knife
Eartha Kitt – I Want To Be Evil
Bugsy Malone Film Soundtrack – Bad Guys
Peggy Lee – Fever
Andy Williams – House of Bamboo
Frank Sinatra – Let’s Face The Music And Dance
Ella Fitzgerald – Night And Day
The Chordettes – Mister Sandman
Louis Armstrong – Cabaret
Buddy Greco – The Lady Is A Tramp
Marilyn Monroe – Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend (Swing Cats Remix)
Dory Previn – Yada Yada La Scala
Bryan Ferry – These Foolish Things
Topsy Turvy Film Soundtrack – Three Little Maids
Anita O’Day – You’re The Top
Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking
Ute Lemper – All That Jazz (solo album version)
Glenn Miller – In The Mood
Alessi Brothers – Oh Lori
The Flamingos – I Only Have Eyes For You
Shirley Bassey – Big Spender
Serge Gainsbourg – Initials B.B.
Brigitte Bardot (subject of the above song) – Everybody Wants My Baby
Blossom Dearie – I’m Hip (contains the lyric ‘once again, play Mack The Knife.’ So…)
Bobby Darin – Mack The Knife

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