On The Research Binge

Monday 10th February 2014. Room 321 at 43 Gordon Square, part of the Birkbeck campus. I am obliged to do a class presentation on Romantic Age Fiction, as part of the English degree. I choose William Beckford’s Vathek along with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. This is partly in order to say something about the gothic and gender and camp, but mostly because the two novels rarely get discussed together as it is.

This is a sign that I’m starting to enjoy looking for these little gaps in literary studies, knowing that here is a space on the big collective bookshelf which I might be able to fill. The thought is one I used to view as impossibly vain and arrogant – the inner critical voice saying: ‘who are you to add yet more stuff to the world? The world doesn’t need more books, more words, more records. Other people do those. Not you.’ But arrogance and confidence have a shared border. And if everyone thought like that, there would be no books and records full stop.

The fun is knowing that it is possible to say something new and original and fresh about anything, even Jane Austen. So I stand up in the room in Gordon Square and I argue how Jane Austen is camp. Well, okay, she’s camp just for that one novel, and inadvertently on her part. Effect, rather than intention. But I’m convinced that when dipping her hands into the gothic with Northanger Abbey, Ms Austen accidentally comes out wearing black nail varnish.

Quips aside, I do my best to back this claim up with a decent amount of research and quotes and theory, and hope for the best. Arrogance plus commitment equals art.

No problem arguing that Beckford’s Vathek is camp, though. In his introduction to the Creation Books edition, Jeremy Reed singles out the Caliph’s unceremonious exit from a black marble bath: ‘he flounced from the water like a carp’.  Reed adds that ‘no camper note was ever sounded in the late eighteenth century novel.’

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Tuesday 11th February 2014. In the British Library I find myself getting into spontaneous ‘research binges’, particularly when seeing a quotation without proper citation. The quote I’m thinking about this week is a favourite joke about footnotes:

‘Encountering a footnote, as Noel Coward remarked, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love.’ – GW Bowersock, ‘The Art of the Footnote’, American Scholar, Vol  53 No 1 (1984).

Did Noel Coward really invent this joke, I wonder? It seems a little too… physical for him.

I’ve also seen it in Chuck Zerby’s 2007 book The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes, but that just cites another book, Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, from 1997. Grafton credits a 1989 essay on footnotes by Betsy Hilbert, which in turn cites the 1984 Bowerstock essay, as quoted above. With supreme irony, Bowerstock goes without any references or footnotes full stop.

Today, however, I find a revised edition of the Grafton book, from 1999, which says Noel Coward got the joke from John Barrymore, as in the vintage Hollywood actor. He refers to a 1976 biography by Cole Lesley, The Life Of Noel Coward (also known as Remembered Laughter), where the joke is a little more sexually explicit. According to Lesley, Coward ‘could never bring himself to glance at [a footnote], he said, after John Barrymore expressed the opinion that having to look at a footnote was like having to go down to answer the front door just as you were coming.’

Naughtier versions or not, there’s no mention of where Barrymore said it himself. So I keep digging away until I find Gene Fowler’s Good Night Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore, published in 1944. It has an anecdote about the actor preparing for Hamlet in 1922. He buys a copy of the play with no footnotes:

‘[John Barrymore] detested footnotes of any calibre, and said of them “It’s like having to run downstairs to answer the doorbell during the first night of the honeymoon.”’

The joke certainly suits the four-times-married grandfather of Drew much more than it does the publicly asexual Coward, and Coward is thought to cite Barrymore when he used it. To attribute the quote to Noel Coward alone does a disservice to both men.

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Wednesday 12th February 2014. The web is 25 years old. I started using it at London’s first internet café, Cyberia, in Charlotte Street in 1995. The browsers were all Netscape – it was just before Internet Explorer. I once saw a man storm out of Cyberia saying ‘What a waste of time. You might as well make a phone call.’

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Thursday 13th February 2014. I get my highest essay mark yet on the degree course. It’s an 85, for a piece on Wilde’s Dorian Gray. To put this in context, a First for a BA English is a 70, while an 80 is a High First, for showing ‘characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level’. And I still have over a year of the undergraduate course to go. Tonight the tutor takes me aside after the class to urge me to consider postgraduate courses when I finish.

I call Mum to tell her. It’s quite an emotional call, as it’s the first achievement of mine that she can’t share with Dad.

My original plan was just to get an English degree full stop, partly out of being fed up with feeling uneducated beyond GCSE level, but also because I felt instinctively that I might be one of those people better suited to doing a degree in later life. This has now turned out to be true – and then some.

Right now I have to admit I’ve no pressing desire for a career in academia, but I don’t dislike the idea either. My main concern, as ever, is how best to earn a modest living from this ability. It surely has to be of worth, to someone, somewhere. I’d even consider living abroad if it came to it.

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After class, I dash off to the Platform Bar, a trendy Hackney hostelry, two floors up in an aging tower block. It’s the launch for The Yes, Sarah Bee’s uplifting book for children. Very Dr Seuss-like, illustrated with colourful abstract animals by Satoshi Kitamura. There’s a website at www.sarahbee.co.uk

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On Camp: Gaga v Perry

Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.

What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.

I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.

(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )

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Sunday 29th December 2013.  End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.

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Monday 30th December 2013.  Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed  when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.

A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.

I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.

The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.

All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.

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Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.

At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.

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Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.

Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.

The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:


I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.

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Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:


Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.

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