Wednesday 22nd August 2018. Â I read Beverly (2016), the graphic novel by Nick Drnaso. Mr Drnaso’s second, Sabrina, has just been longlisted for the Booker Prize, the first time a comic book has had the pleasure. Beverly is a series of short tales with overlapping characters, set mainly in the suburbs of contemporary Illinois. Various drab and mundane lives are examined, with hints of psychosis lurking beneath the surface. The tone recalls Todd Solondz’s film Happiness, not least with a troubled boy who has visions of mass slaughter. Artistically, Chris Ware’s style is the nearest point of reference: quiet panels, pastel shades, human faces reduced to bare lines, much like the diagrams in the safety instructions on airplanes. Drnaso’s style is more deliberately crude though, hinting at the frustration of the characters; brave faces as masks of loneliness.
But I wonder if this approach now touches on cliché. When I saw Solondz’s latest film Wiener Dog I felt the weariness of a once-fresh vision turned into repetition and staleness. Perhaps this is unfair: did people tell Henry Moore, ‘Not another big lump of stone with holes and curvy bits! Haven’t you done that enough?’ What does one want from a favourite artist – more of the same, or a radical departure? It is difficult to tell. Still, Mr Drnaso’s work has the confidence and seriousness of lasting art.
I have dinner at Pizza Express on Coptic Street, near the British Museum. Chosen mainly because Derek Jarman’s early 1990s diaries mention it as a regular London eaterie. It’s still here, a Pizza Express since 1967. The building itself is a former Victorian dairy, with the original decorative lettering left unchanged on the exterior; the letters are like a children’s picture book. Hardly anyone else is in there tonight: quite the contrast to the more packed branch on the Euston Road.
Thursday 23rd August 2018. One of my favourite Pet Shop Boys songs is ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ (1997), a b-side, or ‘bonus track’ as they are known in these less physical days. I now learn from the sleeve notes to the reissued CD of Bilingual that the song was inspired by the Baron Corvo novel Hadrian VII. This is enough for me to love the group forever. I also realise that Neil Tennant is a rare example of a male entertainer today who has never been tempted to grow a beard. I take some comfort from this.
Indeed, on the tube today there is an advert for a young person’s 18-24 railcard. The accompanying photo is of two young men playing video games. They both resemble George Bernard Shaw. In my case, despite the excuse of age, I feel that growing a beard would be fraudulent. It would signal to the world that I felt the slightest bit manly, and that would not do.
To Islington Vue with Ms Shanthi to see Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. The film is not exactly Citizen Kane, but I come for Cher singing ‘Fernando’ and I get it so I’m happy.
I note that the director is Ol Parker, who did Imagine Me and You. This was the Richard Curtis-esque lesbian romcom that was a flop when released in the mid-2000s, but which has now become a cult favourite. In the Abba film Lily James, playing the young version of the Meryl Streep character, has the most to do: she works her socks off to make the sequel work, and succeeds. ‘Sentimental’ is usually a pejorative, but if the film is well-made enough, to the point where nothing feels lazy or banal, it’s hard not be won over. On the way out of the screening room two teenage girls are walking ahead of me. They clearly love the film, despite the ancient songs and aging flesh (except for Cher, who is now 90% Tupperware). One girl is in such a good mood that she spontaneously does a cartwheel while walking down the corridor. It’s that sort of film.
Friday 24th August 2018. I read a lengthy interview with Stewart Lee which has been issued as an A4 fanzine, ‘Where Are the Thinkers?’ (published by Post-Nearly Press). There is much discussion of how best to make art in one’s forties. Mr L talks about the group Sleaford Mods, two men who were too old for the Radio 1 crowd, and who made no concessions to joining in with current trends whatsoever. Instead, they just worked on their music and put it out, to the point where an audience came to them. By this time their work sounded confident and defiant and lasting. It didn’t sound needy, that’s the secret. The best way to build an audience is to sound like you don’t need one. Whereas hype, fashion, and youthfulness might attain success more quickly, but it’s less self-sufficient.
(This is what I need to do now, but with books.)
Mr Lee talks about the time in the mid-2000s when he ‘massively slimmed down his expectations of life’, and just worked on making his work work. A more intense version of the same thing happened to Russell Brand, though only after he exaggerated his image into a cartoonish, camp blaze. Sebastian Horsley was on the verge of a similar, neo-dandy success when he died. I admit it’s what I want to happen to me, too. If only because I don’t really make sense otherwise.
Evening: to the Regent Street Cinema for a double bill of old Arena BBC TV documentaries. One is on the 1960s record producer Joe Meek, the other on the 1960s playwright Joe Orton. Both were gay men called Joe who lived in small flats in North London, and who both met with untimely deaths in 1967. Travis Elborough introduces the films, and points out the irony of 1967 being the year of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality; indeed, 1967 also saw the death of a third gay pop culture figure: Brian Epstein. After the Meek film there’s a Q&A with the drummer on many of theÂ records, Clem Cattini. Now 80, he’s full of polished anecdotes about the various egotistical characters he’s worked with over the years. It’s quite cheering to see someone from rock and roll history who’s not only alive, but who isn’t mentally scarred or bitter about money. Mr Cattini just got on with making music. When he casually mentions that he was the drummer on ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, that monument of rock history, tonight’s audience breaks into applause.
Saturday 25th August 2018. I am wearing a chalk-white suit today. Partly because Tom Wolfe has gone, so I like to think there’s a vacancy, but mainly as a kind of yin to Roger Stone’s yang.
I’m reading Derek Jarman’s diaries when the news comes through that Keith Collins has died. Collins was Jarman’s ‘HB’ in the diaries: the director’s late muse and live-in companion at Dungeness. I’m intrigued to discover from the Guardian obituary that they were never lovers in the sexual sense: Collins had a lifelong boyfriend, Garry, whom he married this year, just before he died. Thinking of the diaries now, I realise that they hint of a non-sexual relationship, though it’s never made obvious.
Nevertheless, the two were devoted to each other. One photo in Smiling in Slow Motion has Collins cradling a frail Jarman on the latter’s hospital bed. The younger man has a tattoo of a seahorse on his arm. A couple of years ago I was in the same room as Collins when I attended an IMAX screening of Blue, which he introduced. But I never had the chance to speak to him. I wish I had, if only to show him my seahorse cufflinks.
Some more thoughts on Smiling in Slow Motion. Vintage are planning to reissue At Your Own Risk and Chroma next year, both of which were written in the period covered by these diaries. Interesting to compare the old book covers with the new: Jarman’s face is gone, replaced by shots of the Dungeness garden. It’s a reminder that the man himself was once a brand – a TV chat show guest, in fact. In 2018 perhaps his selling power relies more on the work, not least the garden. Jarman himself says somewhere that he should have been a gardener rather than a film director.
Neil Bartlett’s introduction to the new edition of Smiling is a useful contrast to Olivia Laing’s introduction to Modern Nature, the earlier diaries. Whereas Laing specialises in renewing artists’ lives down the years through a detached and personal reading, Bartlett is a direct witness from the era in question. Accordingly, he can corroborate the queer rights struggles depicted in Jarman’s diaries.
Bartlett reveals that one of Jarman’s aborted projects was a modern-day film of Dorian Gray, with Bartlett himself as the writer. He also reminds the reader that although usually labelled as a filmmaker, Jarman was rated by the art world as a painter, so much so that he was shortlisted for the Turner prize in the 1980s. This is the key to Jarman’s work, and what makes it so intoxicating and addictive. As with the films, Jarman’s prose has a highly aesthetic sense of its own artisan integrity. He wrote the diaries with a fountain pen in a decorative hand – a page of which is reproduced in Smiling in Slow Motion – and kept writing until he was physically incapable of continuing.
Mr Bartlett further argues that for all the rainbow-branded awareness of today’s more enlightened times, there is still a dearth of depictions of gay domesticity, then as now. Certainly, the book is evidence of the way that in the early 1990s gay people were not just struggling for their rights, but for the right way of struggling. Jarman favoured the radical street protests of Peter Tatchell and Outrage, as opposed to Ian McKellen and Stonewall’s more polite, lobby-based efforts. Indeed, there’s times in the diaries when Stonewall seems as much Jarman’s enemy as the Conservative government.
It is the old dilemma of speaking to power: is it more effective to kick down the doors, or to politely knock?
When thinking of death, Jarman mentions artists whose passing wasn’t so sad, as ‘their work was complete’. In his case, despite the tonal finality of Blue, he was working on even more films when he died: his Dorian, plus an adaptation of James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms.
Meanwhile, Keith Collins is the hidden star. Not only is he a recurring character, as Jarman’s handsome companion, collaborator, and eventually carer, but he also transcribed, edited and named this posthumous volume (after a line in the diaries about Ken Hicks, one of the actors in Sebastiane who had died of AIDS by the early 1990s, but is immortalised in the film, smiling in slow motion). The book is now a memorial to Collins as well as Jarman. It is required reading for those who live an artistic life against the odds.
Monday 27th August 2018. To Broadway Market, my first visit since moving to Dalston. Though it’s technically within the same postcode, it’s slightly difficult for me to get to. I can either take a cramped and infrequent bus that winds through residential streets (the 236), or I can ride the smooth Overground train from Dalston Junction to Haggerston, then walk east along the canal.
Unlike Dalston, where social worlds collide, Broadway Market is more overtly arty. At Donlan Books, one of those shops where one wants to buy everything, I pick up Not Here – A Queer Anthology of Loneliness. I have a sandwich at La Bouche, a busy deli where one can barely move for all the laptops.
Dinner with Kath G at the veggie-only Mildred’s in Dalston Square. I like the space of the high ceiling here, the clear lines of the new building.Â My other favourite local restaurant is Mangal 2, which is smaller but cheaper, and one often sees Gilbert and George in there.
Tuesday 28 August 2018. I cannot get used to the idea of an album ‘dropping’, as in being released. It smacks too much of the testicular.
Wednesday 29 August 2018. Evening: to the BFI Southbank for a screening of Jarman’s Sebastiane. There’s a short introduction which acknowledges the recent deaths of Lindsay Kemp and Keith Collins. Mr Kemp’s face is the first sight in Sebastiane: the bald dancer covered in white body paint and little else. I note how the first image is briefly a blank blue screen, just before the credits start, which makes for a neat bookending with Blue. The infamous erection shot now seems unusual rather than shocking, and entirely fitting to the dreamy, loving ambience. The film is now tame compared with what one can see on the internet, and yet still daring in terms of what is seen in the cinema. Once, people went to cinemas in central London to enjoy pornography. Now they go to the cinema to escape all the pornography online.
I look around at the audience, which is half the pleasure of going to the cinema in the first place. There’s a few gay men, as might be expected, but also a group of four or five young women, who are very quiet and who take the film extremely seriously. Students of film, I decide. And one or two elderly heterosexual couples. I’ve found there’s always at least one elderly couple at any film screening I go to, but for arthouse gay fare it does rather seem less expected. All of which hints about my own prejudice. One can never tell who will enjoy what.
In the foyer of the BFI I’m recognised by one of the staff, Rastko Novakovic. ‘We have a shared passion, Mr Edwards’. He is making a Ronald Firbank film. The details are at theflowerbeneaththefoot.com.
Thursday 30 August 2018. Thinking about Big Brother, the TV show, and how the first series in 2000 was the only one to allow books, I consult the British Library copy of Big Brother: The Official Unseen StoryÂ by Jean Ritchie (London: Channel 4, 2000). This confirms that the first set of rules indeed allowed books and magazines – two of each per person. If it were me, I’d have taken in The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Complete Ronald Firbank.
Of the BB housemates in 2000, Anna took in To Kill A Mockingbird. Mel took in Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which she then lent to Darren, who had previously described himself as a non-reader (a dangerous example of the power of books). Most of the other books taken into the house were cookbooks, self-help and spiritual books, or self-teaching manuals for languages or science, brought with the hope of learning new skills. By the second series, the books were banned.
Friday 31 August 2018. An impulsive trip to Southend, mainly because I’ve developed a love of sea air, if only because I’ve also developed a cold. Southend is very quick by train from East London: one goes via West Ham and is there under the hour.
I love the little pier train, which exists purely to take people from one end of the pier to the other. I also love that one can send postcards from the postbox at the sea end.
Afterwards: fish and chips at the Royal Hotel, with a sea view, reading the LRB. Then I escape back to London before the infamous Essex nightlife kicks into action. My white suit is already getting comments.
In the LRB, Sally Rooney reviews Sheila Heti’s Motherhood in the best possible way: reviewing the other reviewers. The book asks whether a female artist should have children, in terms of having a fulfilling life. Heti’s narrator – who is essentially Heti – eventually decides to be childless, the better to concentrate on making art. Art for her is ‘the child that will not die’. Well, I think, that depends on the reviews.
Rooney quotes Willa Paskin’s review in Slate, in which Paskin declares her own motherhood. Outrageously, Ms P wonders whether the book might have been ‘better’ if Heti had chosen to be a mother in the end. This seems an incredibly rude thing to say, even for an arts critic. Ms Rooney doesn’t hint at her own maternal status, but she sympathises with Heti if only because of all the female critics rushing forth to rub their own motherhoods in the author’s face. It is as if the book is criticising them personally for being a different person.
A similar thing happened with John Updike’s review of Alan Hollinghursts’s The Spell (1998). Updike went from judging a literary novel to judging all gay people ever. They were not ‘proper’ human beings because they did not have children (Updike forgetting about the ones who do).Â This was not a question posed by the novel, but Mr Updike rushed forward to answer it anyway.
Between parents and the childless, one would have thought it would be the latter who would be more defensive about their choices. With these critics it seems to be the reverse. All reviews review the reviewer.
Saturday 1 September 2018. A sunny day. I wander around Battersea Park. The Pump House Gallery is closed for a wedding. A sign reads ‘Mr & Mrs Alford’. Outside there’s a marquee full of dressed-up people drinking a toast. One of them beckons to me (I think). I wonder if he recognises me, or is drunk and wants to mock me, or that he thinks I’m a late guest. I walk on.
It’s a shame I’m not invited to more weddings, if only because I often dress like I’m going to one. Â â€
Near the Old English Garden I find a 1980s monument to animals abused through vivisection. The memorial is a small statue of a dog. A plaque reveals that it in fact replaces a much older memorial from 1906, which a subsequent council decided was too controversial, and removed. I think of Fergus the white rat, my landlady’s pet, whom I occasionally looked after. Fergus was saved from a lab. He died this week of old age, at two and a half years.
The Peace Pagoda is another 1980s fixture of the park. Like the dog statue, it was paid for by the left-wing GLC, and symbolises another protest, this time against nuclear war. The view of the Thames standing on the Pagoda platform is superb, and underrated.
Monday 3 September 2018. My birthday. Cards from Mum and Auntie Anne, and a text from Charlie M. I do my usual birthday thing of getting on a train to somewhere I’ve not been before. Today I’m still on a coastal theme, and am curious about Hastings.
This is a slight cheat, as I was in Hastings once before. Spearmint, the band in which I briefly played guitar, played a gig there circa 1999. After the gig I was left sitting in the tour bus by myself, for some reason. Outside the van, which was parked near the town centre, a group of laddish young men appeared, clearly on their way back from a pub. They then proceeded to have a vicious fight with each other for no other reason than it was a Saturday night. This went on for some minutes: there was blood on their t-shirts. I had no choice but to sit there until this depressing sight ended. That said, afterwards I noted the pleasing resonance of witnessing a real life battle in that particular town.
Since then, I’ve been told that Hastings has become a much nicer place to visit, with hardly any violence, at least not on Monday afternoons. So here I am. The tourist information office sells an entire book about the locations used in Foyle’s War. I stop for a drink in Crowley’s Bar, an Aleister Crowley-themed venue near the railway station. One might think it plays death metal, but when I visit they’re playing 70s disco hits. Tonight the upstairs room is hosting a session of role-playing games. There’s a small library in the corner, with books on Crowley, a Clive Barker novel, and a comic, Satanic Mojo.
Mum has been to Hastings before, albeit not to the Aleister Crowley bar. She recommends a book-lined café, Hanushka, so I investigate. It is heaven. I spend a pleasant hour or two just leafing through the hundreds of books they have, with bookshelves coating every wall, ceiling to floor. I look through The Abba Annual 1982. Agnetha’s favourite film director is Roman Polanski. There’s a quiz of ‘Abbagrams’: ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’ is the answer to ‘Bleary Anna In Triplet’.
Some aspects haven’t changed from my previous experience, though. As I walk past a pub in the town centre, some pint-downing men outside nudge themselves at my white suit. ‘Oy! Ghostbusters!’ As catcalls go, it doesn’t even make any sense. Hastings really needs to get a better class of idiot.
The pier has been refurbished. There’s dozens of little metal plaques around the handrail, the results of a fundraising drive. Many of the plaques are engraved with the usual memorials. Some mark happy memories of youth, such as the time in the 1960s when the pier hosted concerts by the likes of The Who and Dusty Springfield. Others are mysterious in-jokes: ‘Thick as These – Andy and Felix’, ‘Take Off Your Stockings and Pee In Your Shoe – Peggy’.
Tuesday 4 September 2018. One benefit of living in London without much money is that one can take advantage of last minute tickets. If you turn up at a show with minutes before it starts, there are often cheap or even free tickets available. Particularly at industry events, where the guest lists are large.
Tonight I walk into the BFI Southbank on a whim. I am soon handed a free ticket to a preview of the new Channel 4 TV series The Bisexual. The show is a comedy directed by and starring Desiree Akhavan. I had enjoyed her film from a couple of years ago, Appropriate Behaviour, about the ups and downs of a wisecracking Iranian-American woman (Ms Akhavan) in New York, as she looked for love across the genders, or failing that, a fling that wasn’t terminally embarrassing. The Bisexual is more of the same, except in East London. There’s a Q&A afterwards with Ms A and her fellow cast and crew, including Maxine Peake, but Ms A dominates proceedings. She points out how many lesbian films are directed by men: Carol, Imagine Me and You, Blue is the Warmest Colour. On top of which, there’s too few bisexual role models: ‘There’s Anne Heche, but she’s not the best one. She broke Ellen’s heart.’
The first two episodes, which are screened tonight, are very funny and engaging. There’s satirical echoes of Nathan Barley, along with the cult, sardonic feel of Peep Show. Except more queer and more female. It’s on in October. It deserves to do well.
Saturday 8 September 2018. To the Rio for another Desiree Akhavan project: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a new film. This time Ms A stays behind the camera and adapts a novel about a gay conversion camp for teenagers, with 1990s period details. The protagonist listens to an album by the Breeders – on cassette. I wonder what the young actors made of cassettes, those obsolete if mostly unmissed little objects.
I quite enjoy the film, but compare it unfavourably to But I’m A Cheerleader. That film had the same plot, was also directed by a queer woman, and was (in every sense) much more camp. Cameron Post is made in a traditional realist style, so it feels like a straight text about gay people. This might be what reading Ronald Firbank novels and watching Derek Jarman films has done to me, though. I’ve started to hunger for idiosyncratic styles. It can be a style of dialogue: The Bisexual is conventional in form, but the catty quips and bon mots bring the required amount of style.
That’s what’s really underrated now: style. People are typing away too quickly, posting, tweeting, churning out the content, all the time valorising quantity and frequency over individuality. Writers are terrified of sounding different. As a result, so much content reads the same and sounds the same.
More style, less content. There’s too much content. We need to get post-content.
Monday 10 September 2018. To the Horse Hospital for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest, Atlas of the Unexpected. It’s his second book of strange and unusual places. This one has the Shell Grotto at Margate, which I have visited. The Shell Grotto is the sort of place one can’t believe really exists – the stuff of HP Lovecraft’s dreams. Actually, it also evokes that Jeff VanderMeer Neo-Lovecraft novel, Annihilation. I chat to Cathi Unsworth about Edith Sitwell, and Ann Scanlon about Joyce. Blueboy’s ‘Chelsea Guitar’ is played by the DJ – the b-side of ‘Popkiss’.
Wednesday 12 September 2018. To Gay’s the Word bookshop. I’ve been asked by Birkbeck Library to recommend books which might denote ‘reading for pleasure’, as opposed to academic texts. The library encouraged me to pick books that were in stock at local independent shops, such as GTW. Very happy to given this shop as much business as possible. Now that Foyles has been taken over by Waterstones, independent bookshops need more support than ever.
I ask Jim at GTW which books have been recurring bestsellers at the shop over the years. It’s an intriguing list, including Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, John Rechy’s City of Night, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road.
Friday 14 September 2018. Watching all four series of Please Like Me on Amazon Prime (they’re doing a free six-month offer for students). The programme is adorable. It gives the impression that Melbourne is stuffed with ludicrously good-looking men who dress like they’re in Belle and Sebastian.
Am now reading Jarman’s At Your Own Risk (1992), a fragmentary, aphoristic book which channels his personal history through the wider history of gay rights in Britain. There’s an anecdote, repeated in Jarman’s Kicking the Pricks (also titled as The Last of England) in which he remembers going to the London gay club The Sombrero in 1972, and seeing people sing along to the Carly Simon song ‘You’re So Vain’. I wonder if Alan Hollinghurst used Jarman’s anecdote when researching The Sparsholt Affair, because that novel uses the same song for a 1970s scene set in a London gay club, the fictional ‘Sol y Sombra’.
Some lines from At Your Own Risk: ‘I have a vocation that comes before illness’. ‘We are all failures and we know it. It’s that knowledge which keeps us trying’.
And: ‘The lid was off; the dance was on.’
Saturday 15 September 2018. My co-supervisor Heike Bauer asks me if I’d like to give a special LGBT / camp tour of 43 Gordon Square, as part of Open House London Weekend. It’s short notice, and unpaid (like all such tours) but the research is compatible with my PhD, so I agree.
Today I take a look in the Woolf and Whistle bar, on the ground floor of the Tavistock Hotel. This is the site of Woolf’s flat in the 1920s and 1930s, where she wrote most of her major books and ran the Hogarth Press. The Woolf and Whistle bar has a modest Woolf theme to it. There is a large, glossy black decoration on one wall, made up of lines from Mrs Dalloway. The bar sells a ‘Virginia Woolf’ cocktail: gin, Prosecco, gomme syrup, lemon juice: £6.90. In the gents toilets the cubicles are lined with reproductions of Vanessa Bell’s covers for the books. One of them is A Room of One’s Own. It’s not clear if this is meant as a joke.
Monday 17 September 2018. To a training session at Gordon Square for Open House Weekend. I offer my research regarding the often-quoted joke about the Bloomsbury Group: ‘they lived in squares and loved in triangles’.
Most sources give no attribution. A few, like Amy Licence’s book, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, attach the quip to Dorothy Parker, but without any proof of where Parker said it.
Lisa Appignanesi’s book All About Love, attributes it to the New Statesman editor of the mid-twentieth century, Kingsley Martin. Martin did say it in a column in 1941, but he was quoting someone else:
I wonder what people mean by ‘Bloomsbury’? [â€¦] Certainly it is no longer what Margaret Irwin used to describe in the ‘twenties as the place where ‘all the couples were triangles and lived in squares.’
- Kingsley Martin, ‘A London Diary’, New Statesman and Nation, vol 21, issue 527 (29 March 1941), 317-18 (p. 317).
The Margaret Irwin source was recently identified in an article by Stuart N. Clarke (”squares where all the couples are triangles”, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 92 (Fall 2017/ Winter 2018), 38-40 (p. 39)). It’s in a satirical scene from Irwin’s 1928 novel Fire Down Below. I’ve checked a library copy of the book to confirm this:
Mr. Wem knew everyone who was a philosopher or politician or artist or writer or thinker, or rather, everyone whom he counted as such, which did not mean that his acquaintance was at all wide. It was in fact limited to a part of London that Peregrine had referred to in his absence from lunch as Gloomsbury.
‘Where’s that, Father?’
‘It is a circle, my fair child, composed of a few squares where all the couples are triangles.’
- Margaret Irwin, Fire Down Below (London: Heinemann, 1928), p. 109.
So Margaret Irwin, the author of historical novels like Young Bess, seems to have originated the ‘squares and triangles’ joke, rather than Dorothy Parker.
It’s also interesting that the joke was made while the Bloomsbury Group was at its height, proving just how famous their polyamory was at the time it was still going on.
The joke would have been pleased the Bloomsbury gang themselves. For them, gossip was a force for social progress. As Virginia Woolf wrote herself: ‘the fact that [same-sex affairs] can be mentioned openly leads to the fact that no one minds if they are practised privately.’ – from ‘Old Bloomsbury’ (1922), in Moments of Being.
Woolf would have felt vindicated by this passage in Jarman’s At Your Own Risk, about being a young gay man in the 1960s:
The sixties were infatuated with the Bloomsbury Group – upper-class Bohemians who led open and ambisexual lifestyles in the twenties and thirties. [â€¦] We were smothered with information about the Bloomsbury artists. It wasn’t to do with their work, more to do with their love life – Virginia Woolf was bisexual, Vita Sackville-West had a lesbian affair, Maynard Keynes was queer, so was Lytton Strachey who had my friend Robert read him Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in a Paris hotel one night. There was a spate of biographies. The lives of the upper-classes were being popularised. This broke the secrecy that surrounded us and we pitted ourselves against the old moralities.
– Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk (1992; repr. Vintage, 1993), p. 65.
Jarman put this sentiment into his film Wittgenstein (1993). One of the supporting characters is Maynard Keynes, who is shown in a relationship with a young man, played by Keith Collins. Jarman’s other muse, Tilda Swinton, plays the Bloomsbury hostess Ottoline Morrell. She was fresh from the film of Woolf’s Orlando.
Tuesday 18 September 2018. Reading an interview with Olivia Laing, I’m intrigued that she calls herself a former Riot Grrrl, and once published a fanzine, Blah Blah Blah. I mention this to Leila Kassir at Senate House Library, who knows about fanzine archives. She directs me to the London College of Communication in Elephant & Castle. This is a good reminder that one should consult human librarians over Google, whenever possible. Librarians are the keepers of the Un-Googleable things: we must cherish them.
So here I am in the LCC, an imposing modern building by the roundabout, where the computer terminals are state-of-the-art Macs.
Issues 3 and 4 of Blah Blah Blah are indeed typical fanzines from the early 90s Riot Grrrl scene. They’re A5 photocopied pamphlets, written entirely in longhand, alongside images cut and pasted from magazines: and it would have been a literal cutting and pasting, too with scissors and glue. The teenage Ms Laing gave her name as ‘Olivia’, of Denmead, Hants.
The zines are undated, but references to records like God Is My Co-Pilot’s Speed Yr Trip and the Voodoo Queens’ ‘Kenuwee Head’ place them in 1993 or 1994. The writing isn’t so reviews and interviews, but energetic and passionate sloganeering, in the spirit of groups like Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill: ‘Take over the NME and Radio One!’ ‘Burn down the schools!’
The last issue mentions that she’s started a band of her own: ‘We rock!’ And, like a lot of fanzine writers did in those days, the younger Olivia attacks music critics, in this case Melody Maker‘s Simon Price. Today, like many former zine writers, Olivia Laing is a professional arts critic herself. I wonder if her band made any records.
These fanzines, and others, have been donated to the LCC by the musician Jen Denitto, she of the bands Linus, Scarlet’s Well, and The Monochrome Set. When I was in Scarlet’s Well I played with Jen myself, her on drums, me on guitar.
Reading between the lines of my own thinking here, I realise I’m still coming to terms with being part of the generation that’s moved from consuming culture to curating, championing and preserving it, taking it seriously. I wince at seeing bands like the Manic Street Preachers being marketed as ‘Dad Rock’, and pejoratively so (and indeed, overlooking the female fans of that same generation). Even if we are not parents, many of us now feel a need to pass on our knowledge and experience – our cultural genes – in a wider sense. It’s down to us to tell and to guide. ‘Pass it on’, as The History Boys says.Â Well, everyone has something to pass on; the trouble is deciding what ‘it’ might be.
I recently came across an article on the Bustle website (bustle.com), a site which describes itself as ‘the largest premium publisher reaching millennial women’. The article was titled ‘9 LGBTQ+ British Books Perfect For Film Adaptation Because They Deserve The Big Screen’. Woolf’s Orlando appeared in the list: Â ‘This list would be woefully incomplete without Orlando [â€¦]. It needs a film adaptation NOW.’
While it’s worrying to think that the young journalists of 2018 place scant importance on fact-checking, it’s interesting that the 1928 Woolf novel has become better known than the 1992 Tilda Swinton film.
Still, there’s more to being an ‘educator’ than going online and typing ‘wrong, o embryo!’ under some overworked urchin’s listicle. Best make everything you do part of your own work (as with this diary) and put it out there. If only to stop future generations thinking that John Harris’s book on Britpop is the last word on the 1990s.
History is not written by the victors, but by those who can be bothered to write it.
Wednesday 19 September 2018. I do some research on a large painting which hangs in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square building. It’s The Garden Room (1951) by Vanessa Bell, a colourful rendering of a room at the Charleston farmhouse, with the garden in bloom seen through French windows. Two women and two little girls are sitting or standing around in a rather staged manner. According to Frances Spalding’s biography, Vanessa Bell, the seated woman in 1950s clothes is her daughter Angelica, staring across the room at herself as a three year old child. The other little girl, in red, is Angelica’s daughter Amaryllis. The remaining woman is deliberately ‘unknown’ according to Bell, though to me it looks like a self-portrait. The painting was originally a commission to mark the Festival of Britain. The idea was that a number of artists would provide works on large canvases, in line with the spirit of life coming off the ration. The painting appeared in The Listener magazine, in its original form with the seated woman looking entirely different. Bell reworked the painting afterwards, making the figure more like the adult Angelica.
I often sit near this painting in seminars, so it’s good to know a bit more about it.
Saturday 22 September 2018. I do my LGBT-themed tour of 43 Gordon Square as part of Open House London Weekend. The rain pours down, so I can’t stand outside and talk about the different houses, but the three tours indoors go well enough.
I don’t have time to memorise a set of monologues for each room, so I ramble using my notes, but better that than drearily reading from a script. For the last tour only one visitor turns up, so it becomes more of a conversation. It turns out that she was at the Sebastiane screening at the BFI. So I make more of my Jarman-Bloomsbury connections.
Monday 24 September 2018. The titles of this year’s new albums by Spiritualized and Moby both quote the same line from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, ‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’. Spiritualized’s effort quotes the last three words, while Moby’s, which came out earlier in the year, uses the whole line. One wants to tell them: other novels are available, dear hearts. I like that Vonnegut line myself, but I am also sensitive to the way Vonnegut has become the sort of ‘default cool’ writer that people in bands are meant to like. ‘Great minds think alike’ is the alibi of those who lack great minds.
Tuesday 25 September 2018. Still on a queer Bloomsbury tip, I go to the British Library to consult a couple of handwritten letters from Maynard Keynes to Duncan Grant. While researching the tour, I had consulted the Richard Davenport-Hines book Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015), which has a colourful account of the economist’s love life.
I was especially intrigued to learn that in 1910, while living in Cambridge, Keynes had not only met Magnus Hirschfeld, the German sexologist, but had provided information about his anonymous gay flings, for Hirschfeld’s research. The Davenport-Hines book cites a couple of letters held at the BL as evidence, so here I am in St Pancras like a good researcher, deciphering Keynes’s handwriting for myself.
It turns out that Keynes doesn’t refer to Hirschfeld by name, but to a ‘German doctor’ who specialises in homosexuality, and who was ‘the principal witness in the Eulenburg trial’. If that wasn’t enough to narrow it down, my co-supervisor, Heike Bauer, who has written extensively on Hirschfeld, confirms that MH indeed visited the UK in 1910 for his study Die HomosexualitaÌˆt des Mannes und des Weibes (1914), and that this included a trip to Cambridge where he saw (but did not meet) Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland.
What piques my interest is that the letters prove that Keynes and Duncan Grant were familiar with the gay slang usage of the word ‘so’. Rather wonderfully, Keynes calls Hirschfeld ‘The Secretary of the Society of International So.’ (This is not quoted in the Davenport-Hines book, so it may be an exclusive for this diary). I’d known that ‘so’ was an old slang adjective for homosexual (it’s in the film of The Naked Civil Servant), but this appears to be a rare usage of ‘so’ as a noun, to mean homosexuality. I’m tempted to rustle through Keynes’s other correspondence, to see if he uses ‘camp’.
Thursday 27 September 2018. I have taken to calling the DLR ‘The Delightful Little Railway’.
When I put this on Twitter, Richard Hamblyn replies: ‘I always mishear ‘a TfL announcement’ as ‘a tearful announcement’. And often it is.’
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Tags: abba, big brother, birkbeck, birkbeck school of arts, bloomsbury group, derek jarman, desiree akhavan, gordon square, hastings, keith collins, keynes library, lrb, mamma mia, margaret irwin, maynard keynes, nick drnaso, olivia laing, open house weekend london, pet shop boys, sally rooney, school of arts, sheila heti, southend-on-sea, stewart lee, vanessa bell, virginia woolf