The Owl of Minerva

Friday 29 May 2020. We’re all in this together. Except that some of us are more in it than others. The pandemic has exposed everyone’s technological limitations; if you can’t afford super-fast broadband and a decent computer, your lockdown life is going to be rather more locked than others.

My old desktop is dying, and the cheap (£75) mini-PC I bought to replace it can barely run Microsoft Word without stalling. So I finally buy a new laptop. The price is £250, which is the most I can afford. Happily, this just about works for video meetings, a function which for many is now the difference between employment and the dole. I have to spend an arduous volume of time updating the software. One might have thought that someone who had written a diary online for twenty years would be good with computers, or at the very least interested in their workings. But I am entirely incurious. I just want the things to work. And if you’re living on a low budget, things tend to not work. Still, I can speak to Mum via video now. At the beginning of the lockdown, we spoke every day.


Sunday 7 June 2020. The schools remain closed. I read a Sunday Times supplement on home schooling. Here, parents are provided with ready-made lessons written by teachers. One lesson on English grammar requires the pupil to identify ‘forward adverbials’. This is aimed at 8-year-olds.


Thursday 11 June 2020. A day of relief. I have my PhD funding extended, to allow for the obstacles created by the pandemic. I’ll now remain a full time PhD student until October 2021. By that point I’ll be fifty and (I hope) finishing the thesis. What then? No plans, but then no one knows what the world will be like in late 2021 anyway. The grant is still only £17k a year to live on, but it’s work I enjoy. And it certainly could be worse.


Tuesday 13 June 2020. I ‘attend’ an online arts event: a Q & A with the film director Carol Morley. The software encourages you to have your webcam switched on throughout the event, even if you’re not asking a question. I am distracted by seeing the silent faces of the other attendees watching in their various homes.  If this were a physical event it would be like letting audience members spend the occasion clambering over the seats, scrutinising each other’s’ faces and demanding them to explain their bookshelves.


Wednesday 14 June 2020. I watch You Don’t Nomi, an arthouse documentary about the strange afterlife of the 1990s big-budget film Showgirls. When Showgirls was released it was deemed laughably poor. Since then the film has acquired a cult following, almost on the level of Rocky Horror. It’s a good example of Sontag’s ‘naïve camp’ at play; camp by accident. That said, in this new documentary the Showgirls star and director insist that the whole thing was meant to be tongue-in-cheek from the off. I believe Gina Gershon, one of the other actors, though, when she says she played her role like a drag queen.  

We now speak of ‘optics’ – how something looks, though whom to is never quite specified. Something looking ‘bad’ can result in the tainting of a brand, even the sacking of staff.

But not always. Consider our prime minister, a ‘character’ with a strong look, who cares little what people think, as long as they’re looking. This is how camp becomes a weapon. If you make a surface exaggerated enough, it becomes non-stick. Bad films are redeemed with new appeal, bad politicians keep their jobs.


Thursday 15 June 2020. One sign of things returning to normal is that today I get a catcall in the street. On Dalston Kingsland High Street I overhear, in my direction: ‘Exterminate! Exterminate! He looks like f–ing…’

I presume they mean Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who. Particularly in his later episodes, with his hair grown out, looking mad and untamed. He rather anticipated the lockdown look.


Tuesday 20 June 2020. My local bookshop, Burley Fisher, has re-opened but cannot let customers inside. Instead they have a table across the entrance. The staff stand behind this, fetching books like a kiosk.


Friday 26 June 2020. To Clissold Park for tentative drinks in the park with Ms Shanthi and friends. We try to socially distance, but this turns out to be quite difficult, particularly when we stand under a tree to shelter from the English summer rain. The instinct when in company is always to move closer. After a few drinks, even more so. The fear now is that two’s company, three’s an outbreak. Fun has become a minefield of worry.


Wednesday 28 June 2020. People are starting to go on foreign holidays where they can. I can’t share the sentiment: the germ is abroad too. At the moment, I’ll settle for being allowed to visit other parts of London.


Monday 6th July 2020. The lockdown has relaxed to the point where the London Library has reopened. This is my idea of civilisation returning. I’m keen to avoid public transport as much as I can, so I begin a new routine of long walks every morning, from Dalston into the city.

In the main reading room of the LL the armchairs have gone. All the desks are carefully marked, with chairs removed at some desks, so that everyone is at least 2 metres apart. I don’t last long in this particular space, though: someone behind me starts coughing.


Tuesday 7th July 2020. Haircuts are allowed again. Kommy at Cuts and Bruises, 57 Stoke Newington Road, cuts mine while wearing a clear visor. I wear a mask. Somehow he pins back the straps on my mask to the collar guard, so he can cut the hair around my ears. Colouring appointments are still not available, though, so I bleach my hair myself, using a Jerome Russell ‘B-Blonde No.1’ kit. £5.


Wednesday 8 July 2020. The pandemic has meant there’s more bicycles about, along with e-scooters, those powered standing platforms that are suddenly everywhere. The e-scooters manage to look unsafe on both the road and the pavement. I’ve seen a dad take his small daughter to school on one, the child holding onto his legs as he swerves around cars. I suppose that’s an example of risk assessment: avoiding death by virus, at the risk of death by traffic accident.

Each to their own, I suppose, though I resent the way this new trend also endangers pedestrians. Quite often now I find myself close to being hit by an e-scooter or a bicycle going at full speed, even though I am just walking on the pavement.


Thursday 9 July 2020. Am sitting in outdoor cafes more often, a new favourite being the one in Red Lion Square Gardens.

The virus has brought out the city in spots. London is covered in circular stickers on the pavement, marking the limits of two metres, or a one-way route, or both.

At the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Grays Inn Road: a sticker on a post: ‘MASKS ARE BAD FOR YOU’.


Saturday 11 July 2020. To Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for a private view of Sophie Parkin’s paintings. All painted by her during the lockdown. This is my one big social evening out of the summer, though there’s still only a handful of people here, all invited and registered. I enjoy myself, but as with many of my occasional social occasions during the pandemic, I spend subsequent days worrying in case I’ve done something irresponsible.


Wednesday 15 July 2020. Much conversation online about the meaning of statues. Something about the invisible nature of a virus has heightened the awareness of more visible cruelties. Statues of slave traders are being pulled down by protesters, most sensationally with the Edward Colston statue in Bristol.

Toppling statues activates their meaning. It blows off the dust. Only then does the ‘valuable history lesson’ that their defenders point to take place. The Colston statue certainly failed to enter my consciousness until now, and I lived in Bristol for three years.

I’m intrigued by the date of the statue: late 1800s, a whole century and a half after his death. So it represents not just Restoration prosperity but also late Victorian anxiety over the end of Empire. And now, the toppling says something about the anxieties of 2020.


Friday 17 July 2020. Tickets are released for the reopening of the British Library. Predictably the servers crash at once. It’s Glastonbury for researchers.


Saturday 25 July 2020. First time back at the British Library. We’re allocated a specific desk in the reading rooms, but it’s only for three hours maximum per week. And we have to wear a mask.

I manage to stop my glasses fogging up after much initial frustration. What I don’t do is wear a mask with my nose poking out, which many people do as a compromise. Half-arsed faces.


Tuesday 28 July 2020. Thinking of Hilary Mantel’s new essay collection Mantel Pieces, I’m now wondering if Shooting an Elephant should have been called Orwell and Good. Against Interpretation could have been Sontag, Bloody Sontag.


Thursday 30 July 2020. Something the film director Whit Stillman shares with Angela Carter: they both put seminars on Ronald Firbank in their work (Stillman’s film Damsels in Distress; Carter’s radio play A Self-Made Man).


Friday 31 July 2020. Working from home isn’t easy for a lodger. My rented bedroom is not designed to be a full-time office for months on end. Thankfully, Birkbeck have allocated an empty classroom on the Torrington Square campus, in Bloomsbury, to myself and two other full-time PhD students. This will last until the college library reopens in October.

I’m usually the only one in the empty classroom; the security guards have to unlock the room for me specially. There’re so few people in the building, it’s like The Shining. One of the security guards says they’ve had to remove the occasional homeless person from the classrooms.


Thursday 6 Aug 2020. At the Museum of London. Some of the displays are still closed off, as they’re in alcoves where socially distancing is impossible. Instead there are barriers with signs saying ‘Please view from here’. With bleak irony, these include the ones on the Black Death.


Saturday 8 August 2020. To Enfield to house-sit for Shanthi S. ‘It’s like The Detectorists around here’.  


Tuesday 18 August 2020. From a documentary on Philip Glass, I learn that the composer has an Allen Ginsberg quotation taped to his piano, by way of motivation. It’s from Memory Gardens (1969):

‘Well, while I’m here, I’ll do the work –
And what’s the Work?

To ease the pain of living.

Everything else, drunken dumbshow.’


Weds 19 August 2020. First trip out of London since March, to see Mum. We choose to meet for lunch in Manningtree, a halfway point between Mum and London. I’m still too nervous about going much further out of the city. We eat outdoors in the garden of the restaurant Lucca. As per the advice, we sit at an angle rather than directly facing each other, and we don’t hug or touch.


Monday 24 August 2020. The more likely the end of the world, the more I shave and put on a tie.


Saturday 29 August 2020. Hurtling towards the age of 49. I ponder the increasing evidence in my face and consider damage limitation. And yet, I don’t want to be one of those men who grow a beard out of sheer resentment at not dying young.

I’m uneasy that I’m still a very odd person. On the plus side, it’s such a comfort.


As part of my PhD, I’m consulting the British Library’s archive of Angela Carter’s papers: her unpublished letters, manuscripts and notebooks. I recognise much of the material Edmund Gordon included in his biography The Invention of Angela Carter. One example is the phrase she uses when ending a letter to her partner Mark, written while she was away in America. ‘Please miss me’.


Tuesday 1 Sept 2020. To the Rio cinema for Tenet with Jon S. I give up trying to make sense of the premise and just enjoy the nice suits.


Thursday 3 Sept 2020. My 49th birthday. I take a solo day trip on the train to Brighton. Quite a lot of people about, albeit with signs advising social distancing, including on the pier. Prosecco dinner in the Palm Court on the pier. I sit in various cafes and bars, including the ‘Loading’ gaming bar on the beachfront. I don’t join in with any of the computer games or board games. I just look on with my glass of wine, a little confused as to how I ended up here or where I’m going next. But happy to still be around.


Saturday 5 September 2020. At the British Library, I find a note by Angela Carter in one of her journals from the 1980s, all the more amusing given she was once a Booker Prize judge: ‘The Owl of Minerva as a title – from ‘The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk’- Hegel. It’s got a nice, solid, Booker-Prizeish ring to it.’


8 September 2020. Life in 2020: seeing an unknown number on the phone and immediately worrying that it’s Track and Trace (it was a wrong number).


13 September 2020. A favourite quote, usually attributed to Doris Lessing: ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.’ I’ve seen this quote many times, and though I like the sentiment I can’t find any proof that Lessing said these actual words.

‘Do it now’ risks giving Lessing’s name the quality of a Nike ad. Though perhaps that’s the ultimate goal for a writer anyway.


Friday 18 September 2020. To Bildeston in Suffolk for dinner at the Crown pub with Mum. This is my third trip out of London since March, and my first to the village I grew up in since last Christmas. We eat outdoors: it’s warm and pleasant. Mum is now making online videos for her classes on quilt-making. She has over two hundred subscribers.


Sunday 27 Sept 2020. Reading The Young and Evil, which is so rare I have to refer to a copy at Some authors are claiming that breaches copyright to the point of piracy. They have no idea what a lifeline it’s been to students during the pandemic. I think of the remark made (I think) by Tim Berners-Lee around the time of Napster, with people downloading music. ‘Make it easy for people to do the right thing’.

It’s also like the 1980s campaign, ‘Home Taping Kills Music’. Home taping did the reverse: new generations of people, unable to afford records, were inspired to make music of their own. Why are these lessons never learned?


Friday 2 Oct 2020. The National Gallery does Titian face coverings. I wonder what kind of person would buy such a thing. Then I realise it’s me, and buy one.

Branded masks are the way forward now. Bands who do t-shirts need to get into masks. If this was 1990, the Inspiral Carpets would be known for selling more masks than records.


Tuesday 6 Oct 2020. Dinner with Shanthi S in Pizza Express, Upper Street, Islington. The place is close to empty. Many of the other branches of PE in London have closed temporarily or for good. She takes a couple of photos, giving me the air of an Edward Hopper painting.


Friday 9 Oct 2020. From my bedroom I attend the first online lecture of the new academic year. The lecturer supplies a video recording, seven days in advance, complete with slides and subtitles. Then on the evening itself we can put questions to her live. The lack of being in the same room is a drawback, but being able to pause a lecture and revisit different points is a great help to retaining the information. Something is lost, but something is gained.


Tuesday 13 Oct 2020. Mr Johnson announces a ‘three tier’ system for new restrictions, as the coronavirus cases are rising once again. New metaphors take the stage. What might happen now is a short return to lockdown, or a ‘circuit breaker’. What depresses now is the feeling of being trapped in time as much as place. A sense of these things never ending.


Thursday 22 October 2020.  To the Dalston Rio to see Saint Maud, an arty British horror film. The film is atmospheric and confident, if small in scale. It plays throughout with the question of whether supernatural events are really happening, or whether they’re all in the mind of the protagonist. There’s a good use of an off-season Scarborough, its beach and hills. The lead actor, Morfydd Clark, couldn’t be more different from the last role I saw her in, the dog-wielding Dora in David Copperfield.

The Rio cinema has managed to stay open into the second wave of the pandemic, and tonight there’s a healthy amount of audience, all socially distanced and masked, our temperatures checked on the way in. The nearest rival, Hackney Picturehouse, has closed along with the rest of the Picturehouse and Cineworld chains. The blame has gone on the big studios for postponing the noisier, big-budget titles, such as the new James Bond. This is a time of quieter films, for quieter streets.

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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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A Craze Of Pomegranates

Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.

A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.

Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority.  A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.

My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:

‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.

The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:

‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.


Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly.  It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.

Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’

But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.

(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).

Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.

This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.


Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.

The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.

Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.

Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.

I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.


Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.


Friday 30th September 2016.  And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’

I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.

Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.

This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.

Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.

Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.


Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.


Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame. 


Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.

In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.

I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.

Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.

Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).

After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton.  I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.


Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.

There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.

Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.


Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.


Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.

At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.

Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.

It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make.  His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity.  It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.

Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.

Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.

That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.


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Story of The Hair

Saturday 9th May 2015.

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

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

* * *

Monday 11th May 2015.

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

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

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

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

* * *

Wednesday 13th May 2015.

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

* * *

Thursday 14th May 2015.

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

* * *

Friday 15th May 2015.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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A Not-Young Man In A Hurry

Tuesday September 3rd. I turn 42 years old. The consolation of which is that thanks to Douglas Adams one now thinks about being the answer to life, the universe and everything. I always liked how for Mr Adams, turning 42 was the year he became a father.

I don’t have anything major planned for the next 12 months  – and certainly not parenthood – apart from doing another year of the English degree in Bloomsbury. That means I have to be in London two evenings a week. Other than that, I’m just on the lookout for the next thing, whatever shape that may take. A step up in my fortunes would, I’ll be honest, be highly agreeable.  I don’t just mean money, though of course I do mean money. In the meantime, I know I have to write, and that I must work on the writing, and that I must get the writing out there.

* * *

A birthday is really a celebration of the body; a renewal of life’s lease for another year. Since retiring from having birthday parties a few years ago, and in lieu of doing something pleasant with a companion (I am still single), I now see birthdays as an excuse to treat my body to a day trip. It’s as if to say thank you, O Body, for being around another year and not falling apart. I am lucky enough to still have working eyes, so it seems fair to give them new sights to see. I am also lucky enough to still have working legs, so it seems apt to give them new places to walk around. On top of that, I haven’t travelled much in recent years due to lack of income, so a day trip helps to make the birthday feel special. For my 40th I finally found out what Margate and Broadstairs were like, and for my 41st I explored Dungeness.

This year I decide on Eastbourne and the Seven Sisters cliffs, partly because there’s a one-off screening of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder 3D in nearby Brighton, and it’s a film I regretted missing in London. I’ve explored Brighton itself many times before, hence Eastbourne and the cliffs.

Eastbourne has a reputation as a retirement resort, and certainly the abiding sound of the town on my visit is the clack-clack of walking sticks mingling with the cawing of gulls. There’s a long row of benches on the promenade in front of a pretty floral display, pretty much all of them occupied by a senior citizen.


Surrounding oneself with the elderly in abundance on a 42nd birthday is a good reminder that, yes, 42 is older than young, but not properly old. Just not young. I don’t know what to do or feel about being 42, other than finding something to do and getting on with it. As a result, I march through Eastbourne in a state of impatience, knowing I have not just the cliffs and the cinema still to do, but life still to do. I am a not-young man in a hurry.

I’m enormously annoyed to find the Victorian camera obscura on the pier is closed indefinitely, despite the assurances to the contrary by the brand new Rough Guide To Kent, Sussex & Surrey. First published May 2013, it says, and evidently already in need of an update. I rest in the bar at the end, where there are huge TV screens on the walls tuned to the BBC news channel. News is now literally end of the pier entertainment.


Then to the Museum of Shops, which thankfully is open and consists of agreeably cluttered recreations of shop interiors from the last century, presided over by some spooky mannequins in costume. There’s a wealth of obsolete brand names on all the vintage packaging, their extinction rendering them exotic. The most unusual exhibit has to be the midwife’s scissors used to cut the umblical cord of the infant DH Lawrence.


I take the 13x bus up on the cliffs past Beachy Head and the Belle Tout lighthouse (remembered from The Life and Loves Of A She-Devil) , but decide against getting off and taking a look as there isn’t time – clearly one needs to put aside a whole afternoon for cliff walking. As it is, a thick fog has suddenly appeared, blowing along the road in Hammer Horror fashion as the double-decker takes the steep climb from the town. By the time the bus is level with the cliff edge, the sea has disappeared into the grey altogether. I get off at the Golden Galleon pub by Exceat Bridge as planned, and walk the mile and a half footpath to Seaford Head, hoping the fog will lift. It doesn’t. So I get to see the coastguard cottages – the ones Mr McAvoy and Ms Knightley disappear into at the end of Atonement – without the cliffs behind them. Still, the salt marshes and chalk grassland of the Cuckmere Valley are pleasing enough.


After about another couple of miles of fog walking along Seaford Head – carefully observing the ‘Cliff Edge’ signs all the time, and following an unpleasant encounter with an army of flies who take a liking to my linen suit – I feel I’ve done enough exercise to last me the week.


I walk into Seaford town and take the train to Brighton, always enjoying a single platform terminus of a branch line: the satisfying neatness of seeing where a lone railway track comes to a halt.


The moment I get off the train at London Road, close to 6pm, the fog has cleared. It’s a sunny late summer evening. A three-legged black cat crosses my path, and somehow that’s Very Brighton.


My spirits immediately lift; I often sense where I feel more at home, and bohemian, progressive Brighton is one of those places.

At the Duke Of York’s Picturehouse, Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder turns out to be almost Wildean in style. Well-dressed people in a room being very arch and elegant with each other, thinking through all the complicated outcomes of their cunning plans, and adjusting them when things go wrong. The detective has a moustache comb, and uses it. One completely understands Mr Hitchcock’s choice to use 3D here: to make a stage play come alive without crowbarring in new locations for the sake of it. Grace Kelly’s stunning red evening dress therefore becomes even more stunning – I like the idea of 3D couture.

The discussion on 3D in films afterwards turns out to be with the man off the BBC1 film review show, the one who isn’t Claudia Winkleman, plus a film lecturer from Birkbeck, fittingly. Both are very much pro-3D in the interests of artistic experimentation, but admit there’s currently the problem of the extra darkness, the awkwardness of wearing glasses, and the greediness of cinema chains who hike up ticket prices for 3D films. I ask them to comment on Baz Luhrmann’s citing of Dial M For Murder as the main reason he shot The Great Gatsby in 3D. Mr BBC says he doesn’t care for Mr Luhrmann’s style full stop, while Mr Birkbeck confesses he didn’t see the Gatsby film for the same reason. Taste in artistic style will always come before taste in technology.

* * *

All of which discussion applies to my outing on the following evening, Weds 4th September.  I go to the Odeon Holloway to see the new documentary on the boy band One Direction, also in 3D.  Anna S comes with me, and we use the popular Orange mobile offer, where you get two tickets for the price of one. This still costs us £8.50 each, and we go in whispering ‘How much?’ to each other as if we were visitors to the city, up from the shires.

In the auditorium, there’s a group of girls who must be a little too young to attend the boy band’s concerts; 10 or 11 or so. Whatever age where girls learn pop lyrics and presumably pay to see their idols in a cinema, but who also run around while the film is playing, sometimes sitting down the front by the steps, sometimes sitting on the steps, sometimes sliding down the slope above the staircase. This behaviour is obviously not new for children down the ages, but what is new is that they do all this with mobile phones constantly in one hand. One girl goes from screaming whenever her favourite member appears on the screen, to fiddling with her phone, to taking photos of her friends in the cinema, to running up and down the aisle, and then singing all the words of the One Direction songs. It’s the mix of physical with the digital (her tweeting or whatever she’s doing) that most intrigues me.

Obviously I consider going out and asking the Odeon staff if they could do something about this disruptive behaviour. But I decide against it – I have to admit that they are the film’s target market, not me. I can’t even name all five of One Direction. I’m here because I’m curious about what it means to be a British pop star in 2013, and how One Direction are an old product (a boy band) with a new twist: they owe their success to this new hyperactive use of the Internet by their fans. The digital space empowers a band’s followers to come together in number like never before. I only wish their music was a little better: too much of their repertoire is utterly forgettable and bland. Take That and Girls Aloud managed to have manifestly decent songs, so there’s no excuse. (That said, I still have their ‘Best Song Ever’ in my head as I write this. Oh, what a giveaway…)

The film itself does use 3D to dazzling effect at times: a montage of family photos sliding over each other, for example, or Space Invader graphics flying around the band as they perform. But with the over-stimulated urchin girls of Holloway Road running around me, the 3D experience I take away is rather more vivid than the makers intended.

What with that and the benches at Eastbourne, I spend my 42nd musing on the ways the old and the young are meant to act in public. And I suppose I too conform to a stereotypical way of being my age: going to a panel discussion at an art house cinema, for goodness’s sake. And I enjoyed it.

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