How We Used To Swear

Sunday 21st February 2016. Tom’s birthday. I take him for lunch in Soho, at The Crown and Two Chairmen. Nut roast for me, fish and chips for him.  Tom’s a big Alan Partridge fan, so I’m also delighted to alert him to the new series of Mid Morning Matters, just released online (and how to view it gratis, via the ‘Now TV’ free trial). It’s pleasing that this now vintage comedy character can still be as funny as he was in the 1990s. The new series follows the classic sitcom tip of ‘less sit, more com’, where a fixed, claustrophobic location – a radio station’s studio – forces the writers to work harder at producing the jokes. Past examples of this are the Hancock episode where the characters are just sitting around at home, bored (‘Stone me, what a life’), or the similar Porridge episode (‘A Night In’). The format is even there in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, where the gangsters are in a café, simply bickering over trivial subjects. This set-up may be more theatre than TV or film, but can be all the better for it. I’m convinced that the full-length film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa suffered from a need to crowbar in a cinematic, three-act story.

The new series of Mid Morning Matters still has plenty of plot; it’s just weaved into the dialogue as off-stage remarks. One detail is particularly up-to-date: at one point Partridge’s hapless co-presenter, Sidekick Simon, heads off to a job interview for a new website that ‘aggregates content’.

* * *

Monday 22nd February 2016. To the Birkbeck offices in Gordon Square for a meeting with my MA tutor, Grace H. We discuss my last essay. She advises me to take the option to submit my own question next time, rather than choose from the list. It seems I over-did the urge to say the things I wanted to say, rather than prioritise the question’s criteria. That said, I still came away with a distinction, so it’s not like I can’t tick the boxes as well.

* * *

Tuesday 23rd February 2016. Finishing my review of Eternal Troubadour, the new biography of Tiny Tim, for The Wire. One thing I cut for space is a reference to Bowie being called ‘the undisputed king of camp rock’ by Melody Maker in 1972, a term that ‘glam rock’ seems to have usurped. Six years earlier, the Red Bird offshoot label Blue Cat Records labelled a Tiny Tim single with the words ‘The Camp Rock Sound’.

Another favourite detail is the wording for a mid-60s poster, advertising a late-night bill that Tiny shared with Lenny Bruce: ‘Lenny Bruce Speaks For Money. Tiny Tim Sings For Love’.

Interesting to think of some novelty records as entryism. One-off curios to many, gateway drugs to some. As well as Tiny Tim’s ‘Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me’ there’s Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. Ms Anderson is a productive performance artist, successful across the decades, yet for a certain generation of pop fans she’s just a quirky one-hit singer. The phrase ‘best known for’ demands the taking up of one specific perspective. It can sometimes be an unfair one.


* * *

Thursday 25th February 2016. Evening: MA class at Birkbeck. This week it’s Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I bring in Andrew O’Hagan’s review from the London Review of Books, which manages to praise Franzen’s novel while calling some of its stylistic elements ‘show-offy’, with others ‘pure millennial bullshit’. I suppose that’s one way of being balanced.

Afterwards myself, the tutor Joe Brooker, and some of the students go to the IOE student union bar for a quick drink; a much-needed bout of socialising for me. I order a small pizza and offer it around. One of the students, Serena, is Italian. ‘You do know this isn’t very good pizza, don’t you,’ she says. I reply that I hardly expect a student union bar to offer the height of gourmet food, and I’m just hungry.

Serena then suggests some Italian-approved places where one can definitely get decent pizzas. There’s the chain Franco Manca,  Il Piccolo Diavolo in Crouch Hill, and – her favourite of all – Rossella in Kentish Town.

* * *


Saturday 27th February 2016. To a third-floor flat in a pleasant part of Bethnal Green, for the latest attempt at relieving my back pain. This time, it’s an offer from Ms Maud Young to use her bathtub, so I can try out soaking in Epsom salts. My own place only has access to a shower. I think the last time I had a bath must have been in a hotel, which would have been at least five years ago. Afterwards I top up this rare experience with another suggestion: some spray-on magnesium oil, which stings.

Two books lie by the cistern in this shared flat: Douglas Adams’s and John Lloyd’s Meaning of Liff, and Mythologies by Roland Barthes. Toilet books are an interesting genre, though probably not one I can study at postgraduate level. The Barthes is, of course, not a typical toilet book, though it does serve the function of being something one can dip into at random. Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, with its structure of random fragments, might be a similar recommendation for the more bookish lavatory.

The Meaning of Liff is a classic toilet book, though. With its dictionary-like observations on wry commonplace predicaments, it’s like a form of stand-up comedy, albeit one read sitting down. When it was first published in the 80s, it seemed just another jokey and disposable tome firmly aimed at the ‘Humour’ section of bookshops. A book to be filed alongside the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, the Wicked Willy books, 101 Uses For A Dead Cat, and anything by Nigel Rees. Yet The Meaning of Liff has long survived the usual expiry date for such books. Perhaps the respect for Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books helps.

I mention this because today I’m also perusing a brand new toilet book, Get in the Sea! It’s the spin-off of a popular Twitter account by the very sweary Andy Dawson (aka Mr Profanity Swan), in which the objectionable aspects of modern life are instructed to go and away, well, just get in the sea. It’s the ‘get in’ which makes it unique. The words seem an unexpectedly careful, even gentle approach to what is otherwise an angry expression of disgust. A touch of the King Canute too, which keeps the tone of the book jokey and self-deprecating, rather than actually nasty.

Predictably, some of these fashionable irritations I agree with (chuggers, poverty porn TV, Jeremy Clarkson), and some I don’t (online petitions, cereal cafes, and Benedict Cumberbatch, though I do like the idea that Cumberbatch is thought to have ‘a face like an anagram’). In one case I find myself to be someone who must get in the sea too, as I am one of the ‘people who don’t like sport’.

Despite its status as a toilet book of the moment, Get in the Sea! might be valuable in decades to come as a slice of 2016 attitudes, just as The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook must now be useful for studying the 1980s. It’s another form of How We Used To Live. And indeed, how we used to swear.

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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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Part Crowd

I’m currently kitten-sitting in Golders Green, on and off for the next couple of weeks while the owners are abroad. Here’s a photo of the feline in question. Breed: Birman. Name: Piccadilly. Born in March.

In the hope of teaching him autonomous amusement, I’ve set him up with a couple of cardboard boxes from the local supermarket. But his favourite toy seems to be me. He has yet to learn that my trousers are not built for his teeth & claws. The owners have given me a water spray with which to teach him such boundaries, but it seems to have little effect. Either he’s one of those cats who like water, or he’s a bit of a masochist when it comes to suit-trouser love. ‘Yea, though the water jets may come, I will battle on to embrace my true beloved, The Trousers.’

I’ve been meaning to upload photos of myself from a session by Kim Cunningham. Here’s one. Taken May 2011 in Pond Square, Highgate:

Photographer credit: Kim Cunningham.

This week: to the Everyman Baker Street cinema to see Bridesmaids. Produced by Judd Apatow, written by its star Kristen Wiig, and touted in the press as a rare mainstream comedy ‘chick flick’ that appeals to both genders. Which essentially means there’s a lot of broad slapstick and bad taste humour. Like Mr Apatow’s Knocked Up, however, it suffers from an unwieldy duration and insistence on pushing the jokes aside to end with some very traditional Hollywood moralising. I really wanted the touch of unpredictable anarchy of, say, Muriel’s Wedding or Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion. Still, the jokes are good enough, particularly the scenes of one-upmanship by Ms Wiig and her more glamourous, richer rival.

A matinee screening, with about ten people in the audience. Normally this would be quite a nice way to see a film – on the big screen in a proper cinema, with as few other people as possible to risk distractions. In fact, Bridesmaids is one of those films that does need a packed room of people. Otherwise one risks what happened with me – laughing aloud by myself in a room of strangers. For comedy films, one needs to laugh along with others.

For this reason, I rarely go to live comedy shows by myself. Stage & cinema comedy is unfinished without a crowd of friends and partners.

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