Disembodied Corners

Saturday 26th July 2014. I’m reading Orwell to the Present by John Brannigan, published in 2003. In the section on novels about London, Brannigan discusses The Satanic Verses. To his credit, there is no mention of the infamous fatwa. Instead, he concentrates on the way the book presents London as a ‘constantly shape-shifting liquid city of the imagination’. By omitting any reference to the controversy, I suppose he thinks that a book’s reputation can be shape-shifting too. That most terrifying phrase in the English language: ‘best known for’.

To High Tea in Highgate High Street, now run by the daughter of Jon Snow, from the TV news (an irrelevant detail which I nevertheless find interesting, if only because I quite like Mr Snow). I meet up with my neighbours David Ryder-Prangley and Philip King, and we swap anecdotes about playing in bands. Phil is the bassist in the Jesus & Mary Chain, who are about to tour with one of those ‘classic album in full’ shows, this one being Psychocandy.

There is, of course, much more to music than playing it. The look of a musician must be right for the band, and some groups are more sensitive to cliché than others. Phil tells me about a guitarist who was once fired from a band for doing ‘the indie knee bend’ pose on stage. Similarly, my own band Fosca had a stipulation when borrowing amps: anything except a Marshall. A Marshall was deemed far too Rock with a capital ‘R’. These things matter.

* * *

Sunday 27th July 2014. Tea at the Museum of London with Ella H. There’s a huge poster announcing a forthcoming exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure that will do well. There really seems to be no limit to the mileage of Doyle’s character. I recently made a joke about pitching a series to HBO called Sherlock Christ. But the comparison isn’t so silly – the character has a following that borders on the religious. And he is, after all, no stranger to resurrection.

After this we walk along the Thames to the Black Friar pub for a few glasses of prosecco (which turn out to be inexpensive, so doubly enjoyable). The pub’s Art Nouveau décor is always worth the trip: bronze relief murals from 1909, all of cartoonish friars. Betjeman campaigned to save the pub from demolition, and it certainly looks like a survivor when you approach it. It’s one of those ancient pubs that resemble a disembodied corner, with the rest of the old street long since pruned away.

Across the road is the redeveloped Blackfriars station, now extended across the railway bridge so that the platforms are high above the water. When alighting at Blackfriars, one can choose whether to exit on the north or south bank of the Thames. This gives the station a disorientating sense of the liminal: to disembark is to step off in the middle of London, yet not on London land.

Evening: to the Boogaloo for a gig by Bid and Alice from Scarlet’s Well, backed by Martin White and his Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra. Kate Dornan is also in the MFMO, while drummer Jen Denitto is watching with me in the audience, so it’s a near reunion of the 2004 SW line-up.  The orchestral arrangement serves the songs beautifully, complete with jazzy trumpet solos. Still a fan, I note the set list: ‘The Dream Spider of the Laughing Horse’, ‘The Return of the Hesperus’, ‘Sweetmeat’, ‘Blubberhouses’, ‘The Vampire’s Song’, ‘Street of a Thousand Fools’, ‘Luminous Creatures’, ‘Purples Rushes’, ‘Mr Mystery’s Mother’. For me, this is a concert of utter joy. I just wish more people knew about the SW albums. Arch, whimsical and exotic, they’re not so far from the records of the Divine Comedy. Afterwards, I chat to Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods and Lester Square from the Monochrome Set.

* * *

Monday 28th July 2014. To Greenwich Picturehouse for a screening of the Globe’s enchanting Tempest. Roger Allam as an understated, sensitive Prospero; Colin Morgan – the young Merlin from BBC TV – as an aloof and intense Ariel. This is quite common now: cinemas showing specially-made films of stage shows. The films are always very well done, to the point where I can’t work out where the cameras must be placed. The Globe’s audience in the film is all ages, though the audience for this cinema screening – at noon on a Monday – is very much on the older side. I must be the only person there under fifty.

Afterwards I wander around Greenwich to look at some of the Books About Town book benches. I quickly discover a flaw in this pursuit: the benches often have someone sitting on them, thus obscuring the artwork. Still, I find an unoccupied one tucked away in the grounds of St Alfege Church. Although it’s celebrating The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, the bench actually depicts its artist Andrea Joseph as a teenager, lying in a cluttered bedroom and reading the Adrian Mole book. It’s also up to date: the book cover in the artwork is labelled ‘Sue Townsend, 1946-2014’.

* * *

Tuesday 29th July 2014. I’m at the outpatient clinic in UCLH to have my veins looked at. While I’m standing at the reception desk, arranging the next appointment, a woman is standing there to one side. She is talking loudly on her mobile phone (ignoring all the signs forbidding such activity). I’m in the middle of speaking to the receptionist when she suddenly says to the person on the phone, ‘Hold on, there’s a man here in a white suit.’ Then she interrupts my conversation with the receptionist.

WOMAN: (to me) Hey, I have to say… (she grabs my arm)... You look immaculate.

ME: Um, thank you. (to receptionist) So, six weeks from now is –

WOMAN: (to me) No, you look like… (to the phone) What’s that film we saw, with the man in the white suit?

ME: The Man In The White Suit, perhaps?

WOMAN: No, no. Hold on! Shhh! (she listens to the phone. Myself and the receptionist, and indeed all of the packed waiting room, are holding on. This is the world of the loud person on the phone. We only live in it).

WOMAN: The Two Faces of January. That’s it.

ME: Ah, yes. I’ve seen that. Thank you. Very kind.

And I go back to arranging my appointment, now feeling somewhat more self-conscious. Somehow, I come away thinking that this sort of thing is all my fault.

* * *

Thursday 31st July 2014. To the Curzon Soho for the documentary I Am Divine. It’s about the life of  the fleshy Baltimore drag queen turned cult actor Glenn Milstead, better known simply as Divine. As expected, a lot of it focusses on his parts in the John Waters films, such as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. But it also covers his 80s pop career with Stock Aiken and Waterman, with hits such as ‘You Think You’re A Man’, and ‘I’m So Beautiful’. What I didn’t know is how much he grew tired of the Divine drag character. Instead, he wanted to move on and play different male characters in films and TV. The tragedy is that he died just before getting exactly that sort of work: a male role on the sitcom Married With Children.

In the evening: to a party at an arty house in Waterloo. It’s for Phoebe B, who is leaving London to live in Berlin. When I get there, I’m hit with the acute awkwardness of realising that the only person I know at the party is the host. I always seem to do this: befriending just one person, and never managing to connect with the rest of their social circle (I wonder why that is… don’t answer that). The upshot of this is that I once again spend an awful lot of the party standing around by myself.

I’m uneasy about introducing myself to a stranger. At least at the Birkbeck evening I had an actual name badge summing my relevant role up: ‘Dickon Edwards – BA English’. That made life easier. Perhaps we should all wear such badges, all the time. At least then no one would ever have to remember each other’s name.

After an hour or so of this sort of paranoid anxiety – and a few drinks – I do manage to start conversations with people who don’t walk away in horror. One is a lady who tells me about the ancient ponds on Hampstead Heath being under threat. She urges me to sign an online petition, and later I do.

[The petition is here:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/stop-heavy-construction-on-hampstead-heath ]

I also meet someone who wrote about me in their fanzine, and someone who follows me on Twitter. So my awkwardness is eventually dispelled after all. I make a mental note to remember that there is an easy solution to this sort of thing: always take a friend to a party, as you would a bottle of wine. Both are a form of safety net.

* * *

Friday 1st August 2014. I watch the documentary Tulisa: The Price of Fame. It should really be titled The Price of Buying Tabloids, as the whole source of Ms T’s courtroom ordeal is a sting by The Sun on Sunday. The message seems to be, yet again, that tabloid newspapers demonstrably make people’s lives a misery. And still people buy them.


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The Schriftstellerin’s Stick

Saturday 5th July 2014. Thinking about the event at the Barbican centre the previous evening, I recall something about the interval. Myself and Ms C had ventured off together to use the toilets, and naturally had to split up when we reached them. The event wasn’t particularly female-heavy, yet outside the ladies there was a queue of a least a dozen women. Outside the gents, no queue whatsoever.

Riddled with guilt at this oversight in what is meant to be a modern building, I offered to escort Ms S into the gents to use one of the available cubicles there. She declined, but I like to think that had she agreed none of my fellow males would have protested. At such instances of self-evident inequality, sharing the Gents with women is surely the test of a true Gentleman. And if any of the men did protest, I would have flung my arms to the air and said like any good academic, ‘But sir, all gender is performativity! Go and read your Judith Butler! But wash your hands first.’

In my case, I often feel like a fraud having to declare a gender full stop, purely in order to use the loos. My fear is that once through the door firmly marked Gents, I will be questioned on my knowledge of football, cricket, cars, sharks, beards, and Jeremy Clarkson. And I will be found wanting.

* * *

I spend the afternoon picking up books on literary camp. At Birkbeck Library I find one of Brigid Brophy’s two studies of Aubrey Beardsley, plus Moe Meyer’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, which seems to have been a set text for a Birkbeck course in the past. The giveaway sign for this is seeing a whole batch of duplicate copies on the shelf. Then to Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street, to ask the staff about their own suggestions. I come away with Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, an example of contemporary Polish literary camp.

In Gordon Square I look at a new piece of public art. It’s one of fifty fibreglass ‘book benches’ which have been installed around the city, and which will stay there until the Autumn. They are a project by the National Literacy Trust, called ‘Books About Town’. Each sculpture is the size of a park bench. It is shaped to resemble a book lying open on its side, then painted to illustrate a particular book. Sometimes there is a connection with the location. Gordon Square was once the address of Virginia Woolf, and this particular bench depicts Clarissa and Septimus from Mrs Dalloway. The artist is Fiona Osborne from One Red Shoe, who also painted the Dorian Gray Olympic mascot sculpture in 2012. Her Septimus has a touch of Wildean beauty about him too: the archetype of the doomed boy.

I get into a conversation with a Woolf fan, Alison, who’s come to see the sculpture along with the dozen other benches in Bloomsbury (there’s a map online). She tells me that the bench celebrating Orwell’s 1984 has already been vandalised and is away for repairs, barely a week after it was installed. For a novel that champions acts of rebellion, this rather smacks of irony.

* * *

Monday 7th July 2014. To the Hammersmith Apollo for ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, a comedy benefit. It’s in aid of The People’s Assembly, which organises protests against the current government cuts. The evening has an old-fashioned left-wing activist feel to it, and is hosted by Kate Smurthwaite. She isn’t entirely joking when she kicks off the night with  ‘Let’s have a revolution!’ The acts are all pretty well known in the world of British stand-up: Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Francesca Martinez, Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Jen Brister, Stewart Lee, and Jo Brand. I’m impressed by Jason Manford: I’d always thought of him as more of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road laddish comic. But clearly his heart’s in the right place. Or in this case, the left place.

Stewart Lee opens his set with an excellent topical gag. It riffs on the most common thing people said after Rolf Harris’s conviction, while alluding to today’s rumours of a well-known Tory MP from the 1980s, who’s thought to be connected with various sexual allegations of his own. I’d better redact his name, in case.

‘I do hope [Dreary 80s Tory MP] hasn’t done anything bad. I’d hate to have my childhood memories of [Dreary 80s Tory MP] ruined.’

Mark Steel must be about as old as Jeremy Hardy – indeed I saw them both (and Jo Brand) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988. But where Mr Hardy jokes about the aging process, Mr Steel seems entirely unfettered by time. He has exactly the same manic energy he had in the 80s, running around the stage and spitting out his anti-UKIP rants with barely a pause for breath. I envy him for this, just as I envy him for his red velvet jacket.

On the tube home, I bump into Russell T. He’s just been to some dinner event with none other than Nigel Farage – the very man who was a butt of so many of the jokes at the Apollo. It transpires that Mr F really does like his drink, even when (as tonight) he dashes off to do a late night interview with LBC, several glasses of wine still sloshing away inside him. So all those photos of him holding a pint of beer are not just a pose after all.

* * *

Thursday 10th July 2014. In the afternoon: to the Prince Charles cinema for Bad Neighbours. It’s a broad Hollywood comedy. A thirty-ish couple with a house, proper jobs, and a new baby have their life made hell when a gaggle of noisy students move in next door. There’s some laboured gross-out humour which seems a bit old hat now, and it’s never clear who the film is meant for – former students who are settling down into parenthood, or current students who want that sort of humour now. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a witty enough comedy of manners tucked behind the slapstick. Rose Byrne in particular is superb as the new mother, who finds it hard to deliver the phrase ‘can you keep it down?’ in a way that won’t make her sound like a spoiler of fun. Which is, of course, impossible.

Then by way of contrast to the National Portrait Gallery, for Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. Somewhat fewer slapstick sight gags there. I suppose this represents the person I’ve grown to become – the sort of person who goes to a Virginia Woolf exhibition – and on the day it opens, too (I couldn’t wait). It’s quite busy, with a mix of all ages and genders. There are some shocks. The first exhibit is a large photograph of Woolf’s Tavistock Square flat in ruins, after it was bombed during WW2. In amongst the debris her fireplace can be seen intact, with its Vanessa Bell decorations exposed to the open sky. Then the show works in refreshing Orlando-esque time travel: the fireplace appears again in a Vogue article from the 1920s, then it’s straight back to her childhood, and then forward again into Bloomsbury, via lots of beautiful Hogarth Press first editions. I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of the 13-year-old Virginia, dressed in mourning for her mother.

At the other end of her life there’s the letters she left before her suicide (‘I feel certain I am going mad again…’), along with her walking stick, which she usually took everywhere. This was a message in itself. When Leonard Woolf came home and saw the stick left behind, he knew at once what had happened. Had she survived her depression she would have discovered that she’d escaped another fate too. There’s a copy of a Nazi wartime instruction book, listing the names of over two thousand British politicians and writers who were to be taken into ‘protective custody’ in the event of a German invasion. The book is open at the entry ‘Woolf, Virginia: Schriftstellerin’. Authoress.


Friday 11th July 2014. A journalist from Q magazine emails, asking if I’d like to be interviewed for an article about the ‘lost tribe’ of Romo. I decline politely. One reason is that I have enough trouble recollecting the specifics of the present (hence the diary), let alone those of the distant past. As it is, I spoke to a newspaper for a similar piece a few years ago, and winced at the dismissive agenda which my words were used to endorse (it was the equivalent of ‘Romo: mostly harmless’).

But my chief reason is really this. If I’m going to rake over those particular coals, I’d rather do so for a stand-alone article about Orlando, and not for another huddling of the band under the wider umbrella of Romo. I feel Orlando did good work, and it wasn’t just us who thought so at the time. We won two Singles of the Week in Melody Maker, plus we released an album which received 8 out of 10 from the NME. There’s modesty, and there’s arrogance, but then there’s also being fair to one’s achievements. Why shore up unfair narratives against your own work?

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