He Believes In Beauty

A full week of activity, so much so that I have to stop myself going to new things in order to write about the old ones. Never mind a life/work balance; the trouble with diary writing is that it necessitates a life/writing balance.

Saturday 11th June 2016. The Tube stations are full of posters for summer festivals. I glance across the long lists of band names and logos, recognising one or two. Are they still going? Have they reformed now?

In my twenties I saw as many rock bands as possible. I once hitchhiked to see The Blue Aeroplanes – and slept on a strange man’s floor. Now rock festivals are something other people go to.

How much of action is taste, and how much is it wanting to belong? And why does this change? I ask myself this as I sit on the tube from Highgate to Balham today, at 9am. I am 44 years old and have paid £10 for a ticket to a literary discussion, one on walking in the city. It takes place at 10 o’clock in the morning in a large pub in South London. I was alerted to the talk by a kind staffer at the London Library, who knew it was what I’d been researching lately – flânerie, all that.

I suppose this is the sort of person I am now. Literary festivals in the morning. Book launches in the evening. I rather like them. There might be a little drama over getting microphones to work (‘Can you hear me okay?’ ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’), but that’s usually the sum limit of irritation. That, and the occasional audience member during the Q&A, the kind of who mistakes the word ‘question’ for a five minute recital of their own thesis.

I go to these bookish events quite happily, safe in the knowledge that there will be no trying to sleep in a tent while people kick a football about at 4am. No queuing to use a latrine. No trying to see past a too-tall man in a jester hat (though perhaps they have those at George R R Martin signings, I don’t know). No moshing down the front, not even for AS Byatt.

What literary festivals do have in common with their rock and pop counterparts is that there now seems to be more of them than ever. Perhaps one reason is that the word ‘tickets’ has acquired a whole new aura, thanks to the internet. It’s easy to get hold of a Kate Bush album. Kate Bush tickets, less so.  ‘Tickets’ means something live, something limited in number, something that can sell out, something fixed by time and place, something special. Tickets are proof of the real, anchors of promise, glimpses of satisfaction. As opposed to the empty calories of swiping a screen for hours, and hoping that counts as a life well lived. Tickets are more of a life.

The Balham Literary Festival takes place at The Bedford pub, near the tube station. This may sound modest, but the venue turns out to have a warren of large-ish function rooms upstairs, and there’s several events going on simultaneously. I’m impressed that there are a good 40 or so people in the audience. On top of that, there’s a healthy absence of commercialism. Of the three speakers, only Matthew Beaumont has a book out. Lauren Elkin’s book on the flaneuse, the female walker (which I really want to read and had hoped to pick up), isn’t yet published. Anna-Louise Milne’s book is only available in French. So I come away impressed that these sort of events really do exist for the sheer joy of ideas.


Afternoon: a late lunch at Orsini in Thurloe Place, then across the road to the V&A with Heather Malone. We see the big glamorous exhibition on the history of underwear, Undressed. There’s a remarkable photo of George Bernard Shaw modelling long johns, prancing happily on a beach. Heather takes my photo by the sea shell in the foyer, a prop to publicise the Botticelli show. I think of the Bjork song, ‘Venus As A Boy’.



Monday 13th June 2016. Like many I’m reeling from the news about Orlando, Florida, where a man gunned down the clientele of a gay club. Fifty dead, more wounded. On social media, people post photos of men kissing, in solidarity. There’s a mass gathering in Old Compton Street, which I’d go to had I not a ticket to see another talk, this time at the British Library in St Pancras.

Still, this event concerns gay life in a way – it’s a discussion of the acquisition of Kenneth Williams’s diaries by the BL. One of the speakers is a BL curator, and she describes the fifty years’ worth of diaries as important to gay social history. Lots of genuine Polari in the earlier diaries, before the slang went public in Round the Horne.

David Benson performs selections from the unpublished diaries in his KW voice (and wears the suit from his one man KW show). He has the crowd in stitches. Nicholas Parsons (now 92) recounts memories of Just A Minute and singles out the performance in a Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘the one about the test pilot’ (The Diary). NP is convinced that the manic public persona and the depressive diarist were both the ‘real’ KW, caught at different times. Williams himself is quoted as saying, ‘My moods are up and down like a whore’s drawers’.

The curator explains that it will be a while before the later diaries are scanned and made available on the BL’s public website. They have to censor anything that libels the living.


Tuesday 14th June 2016. Afternoon: to The Hub gallery in Haddon Street, for a small but quite wonderful exhibition of David Bowie photographs. The street, off Regent’s Street, is the one on the sleeve of the Ziggy Stardust album, and there’s a fair amount of Ziggy-related photos inside, from his early 70s concerts at the Rainbow Theatre, in Finsbury Park.

One photo shoot is from 1989, where an older Bowie returns to the Rainbow Theatre, to promote a greatest hits tour. He stands in front of a montage of his old album sleeves, one hand across his mouth, the other on the mouth of one of the younger Bowies behind him, the long-haired androgyne of Hunky Dory. According to the caption, this is because the Rainbow had become a shelter for the homeless, and Bowie was responding to one of the homeless men who were standing about, watching the photo shoot and firing off questions. ‘Who’s that girl on that cover, there?’ said the man, indicating Hunky Dory. Bowie replied, ‘It’s a girl I used to know’.

My favourite photo is one from 1983, in a Tokyo restaurant. Bowie sits and chats with friends. He’s in his Let’s Dance mode, with bleached yellow hair, three-piece charcoal suit and a tie. Offstage, off duty, yet posing immaculately.

There’s several song lyrics stencilled on the gallery walls. I buy the catalogue (£5, for a cancer charity), and show it to Atalanta later on. She points out how one set of lyrics, from ‘Heroes’, now takes on a new meaning, in the days after the Orlando massacre:

I can remember standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall


Evening: to the Twentieth Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove, for a set of live performances to celebrate John Lee Bird’s exhibition, ‘Before Encore 6’. Mr Bird’s ‘Before Encore’ project has been going for about ten years. It comprises portraits of real people rendered as minimalist line drawings, against backgrounds of bright, single colours. I’d say the style lies halfway between Warhol’s screen prints and Julian Opie’s Miffy-like abstractions of human faces. The project also has a specific aim: to document figures from London’s alternative club scenes. These can be musicians, artists, poets, DJs, or just people seen at those clubs.

Tonight, the new portraits have been blown up into large canvasses and hung around the walls of the venue, a beautiful Victorian theatre. A further half a dozen portraits are dangling onstage as backdrops to the live acts. The subjects include veterans like Genesis P. Orridge and the Divine David Hoyle, established names like Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, and newer faces like the singer with Bête Noire, David M Hargreaves. Bête Noire perform tonight, and I see them for the first time. Mr Hargreaves throws himself about and takes off his clothes, as I’m told he tends to do. What I didn’t expect is that the band is not an arty cabaret act but a serious guitar group, with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place at Glastonbury – they’re reminiscent of Interpol, or possibly The Strokes. I also enjoy readings by a couple of poets, Nathan Evans and Mark Walton. Mr Walton gives me a copy of his book, Frostbitten.

I spend much of my time there chatting with Atalanta K. On the way back to Notting Hill tube, we stop at Kensington Park Gardens, the street where Alan Hollinghurst set The Line of Beauty. I ask her to take my photo against No. 47, the last house in the street. In the novel the main location is given as Number 48, but this doesn’t seem to exist. Hence my compromise. I suppose it’s my version of those Harry Potter fans who pose by the platform in King’s Cross.



Wednesday 15th June 2016. Evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for an MA class. The dissertations due for this autumn are presented by each student. Mine isn’t due till the autumn of next year, so for me this is a way of seeing what the other students are up to, and what sort of subject matter is considered suitable. Of the four students presenting, two are both doing Samuel Beckett, interestingly. One is on narrative technique in Malone Dies, the other is on the use of technology in Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers. The other dissertations are on the experimental poet Maggie O’Sullivan, and underground female comic creators, such as Phoebe Gloeckner. I knew about Gloeckner’s life from the recent film Diary of A Teenage Girl. Drinks in the Birkbeck bar afterwards, on the rooftop in Torrington Square.


Thursday 16th June 2016. Evening: to Waterstones Piccadilly for another bookish event. This one is for the independent Peter Owen Publishers, to mark their 65th anniversary (1951-2016). Peter Owen himself died only a few weeks ago. I had expected tonight to be about him, and about the history of the publishers, but it turns out to be a series of short talks about their latest releases. Still, these are diverse enough. One book by Tom Smith, One For My Baby, is partly a cocktail recipe book and partly a biography of Frank Sinatra. He mixes free cocktails for everyone who turns up. Another book is a novel about the painter Richard Dadd, by Miranda Miller. Evelyn Farr talks about her investigative history into Marie-Antoinette’s letters. Erin Pizzey – a living saint of a woman going by her anecdotes – has a memoir about her setting up a refuge for battered women, in 1970s Chiswick (‘You can be addicted to an abusive relationship, as if it were a drug. And you’ve got to go cold turkey.’)

The author I feel closest to in terms of shared interests is Jeremy Reed, who’s brought out a history of Piccadilly rent boys. Instead of discussing the book, however, he performs his poetry, swaggering from foot to foot in a black beret, pinstripe jacket, and black polka dot shirt. Sebastian Horsley and Marc Almond are namechecked. One poem celebrates Brydges Place, the tiny street off St Martin’s Lane that is barely wide enough to count as an alley.


Friday 17th June 2016. My review of the film Lawrence of Belgravia, now on DVD, appears in The Wire magazine, issue dated July 2016.


Saturday 18th June 2016. Afternoon. To the Prince Charles for the film Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by Michael Moore. I go out of a kind of film fan loyalty, remembering how Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 ushered in the current golden age of documentaries made for cinemas. I think Louis Theroux equally owes his career to appearing in segments for Moore’s 90s TV shows. Where to Invade Next is more positive than angry. It presents the benefits of different social initiatives adopted by different countries, and suggests that the US should adopt them too. Hence the ‘invading’ concept, to steal the ideas. As with Moore’s past work, there’s a lot of skewing the facts to fit an agenda, but MM is still a unique and funny film-maker,  with pertinent points to make.

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Election Eclairs

Last Friday I was kindly invited to the press night of the play ‘Dirty White Boy: Tales Of Soho’, at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall.

It’s based on Clayton Littlewood’s book about the various colourful and sexually graphic characters he encountered when he ran a shop on the corner of Dean Street and Old Compton Street, the Dirty White Boy of the title. He kept a diary, which became a MySpace blog (this being 2006), a newspaper column and finally a book. Then he teamed up with the actor David Benson and turned it into a series of sketches, with Mr L as himself, and Mr B as everyone else. I was fortunate enough to see the duo perform at the Colony Room – a suitably iconic Soho venue – just before it closed.

So now they’ve expanded it further, this time into a full-length stage show. The sketches have become scenes, the characters have dramatic arcs and follow-ups, there’s as much tears as there are laughs, and the scenes are punctuated by songs from a talented young third player, Alexis Gerred. Being not exactly ugly, he also doubles up perfectly as one wealthy character’s rent boy. I’m not so keen on the use of hits by Blondie, Petula Clark, and the Pet Shop Boys as illustrations to the action (though a few years ago I would’ve been; my tastes have changed). But there’s a rather good original number at the start, and his rendition of the Mae West song, ‘My Old Flame’ is absolutely stunning.

Otherwise, it’s as it was in the Colony, with Mr Benson on convincing form as a Quentin Crisp-esque old queen, a pensioner who blows his income on thongs (‘what else is a pension for?’) a motherly transsexual, and even a black drag queen from Chicago.

One aspect of the show that occurred to me is how people in real life often present themselves as types, if not full-blown stereotypes, as a way of dealing with the world. Once you get to know the person, the assumptions dissolve. It’s been said before that camp can be a defence mechanism, but no more so than any other parameter of mannerism or appearance. Choice of hairstyle or clothes, too, will put you into one tribe or another.

Even those who don’t think they’re a type can find themselves ticking boxes unconsciously. I recently saw a photo of people campaigning to save BBC 6Music  and noticed their shared similarities: band t-shirt, jeans, thirtysomething stubble, knowledge of Wire box sets, both Wire the band and The Wire TV series. It’s social type as interface. (Radio-wise, I’m equally mindful of jokes about the stereotypical Radio 4 listener being stuffy and out of touch with youth culture, while the joke about Radio 3  for years was that all the presenters wore black polo neck jumpers.)

‘I am much more than I appear’, we say in our choices of self-presentation. ‘But at least you have somewhere to start. And it’s a comfort. And sometimes, something to cling to.’

It could be argued that Mr L has the hardest job of the night, having to play himself throughout, and – as he says right at the start – he’s no actor. However, his gentle, even-toned, unassuming style of speaking is what holds the show together, and keeps it both original and personal. Had he been replaced with a proper actor, the show would be a lot less special. I hear it’s selling out, and rightly so.


Sunday sees me at the Arch Hotel near Marble Arch, for afternoon tea & cake with Ms Alex Paynter and friends. The hotel specialises in eclairs, and I get my introduction to the savoury incarnation. I suppose it’s not far from a kind of stretched vol-au-vent or a canape with extensions.

High Tea at the Arch comes with Bruce Weber coffee table books to peruse, over artisan bread with gentleman’s relish. I gingerly try an Earl Grey-flavoured martini (billed as a ‘MarTEAni’, groan), which turns out to be absolutely delicious, if a little potent.

Not only are the prices reasonable, but they throw in – o joy of joys – their limited edition Election Eclairs.

I’d been envious of my American friend Jennifer’s Barack Obama chocolate bar, and wished UK elections featured more edible merchandise. At the Arch, I’m delighted to report, faces of the party leaders have been printed in edible ink onto marzipan squares, with which to decorate various appropriate flavours of eclair. For David Cameron there’s Blueberry & Coconut, for Gordon Brown there’s Rose with Raspberry & Champagne Jelly, while Nick Clegg’s flavour is Grapefruit & Champagne.

I love this photo of Ms P caught devouring one of the Gordon Browns.

It should be pointed out that her choice of eclair in no way reflects the way she might vote on May 6th.

(Photo by Chris Amies)

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‘Future Me’

Last night: to the Only Connect theatre in King’s Cross for ‘Future Me’, a superb new play about a liberal, middle-class lawyer convicted of paedophilia, and how it affects those around him. On the surface it looks in danger of being a box-checking and hand-wringing Issue Play,  but thankfully the writing is strong enough to keep it as a good, gripping drama about people first, topical debates second.  Though that’s arguably an issue in itself: daring to look at society’s modern ‘monsters’ as even the slightest bit redeemable is too much for some. Had the play been written by, say, a tabloid editor, all the characters would have had to kill themselves in the first five minutes.

In fact, there was a Louis Theroux documentary on TV only this week – which clocked up a few complaints -  where he visited a Californian institution of correction for sex offenders. Just like ‘Future Me’, this real-life jail featured a sympathetic, rather sweet man who’d taken up guitar playing, and a female prison therapist who spoke entirely in therapy jargon. The phrase ‘Future Me’ is a rehabilitation term used by the play’s therapist character, who actually seemed more human than her real-life Californian counterpart in the TV programme.

I’d been made aware of the play because I’m acquainted with the actor David Benson, who appears in it as an unrepentant fellow inmate, chillingly peddling intellectual pederast theories. Something of a departure from his one-man show about Kenneth Williams.

Then I heard from my fellow Beautiful & Damned DJ Miss Red at the Boogaloo, aka Robyn Isaac, that she was in it too, as the main character’s girlfriend. And it turns out the music is by Simon Bookish, whom I slightly know from a third London social scene. So that clinched my attendance.

A play about paedophiles in a theatre in King’s Cross may seem hardly a big draw for a Friday night, yet the venue (a former Baptist church) is pretty much packed. In the audience I spot the comedian David Mitchell, of Peep Show and Mitchell & Webb fame. I presume he’s not entirely like his Peep Show character, reluctantly dragged to the theatre by a girlfriend, secretly wishing he was at home watching a DVD of ‘Heat’ (‘So much cheaper than seeing a play. And you get Al Pacino AND Robert De Niro.’)

I go for a drink afterwards with Miss Red and Mr Benson at the nearest pub, The Carpenter’s Arms, round the corner in King’s Cross Road. Nice old fashioned place, looking unchanged for decades, and not yet affected by the ongoing gentrification of King’s Cross. Turns out Sheila Hancock grew up there in the 40s and 50s, when her parents ran the bar.

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Sequined Vodka Tales

A Fosca London gig announcement. Oh yes!

It’s the much-threatened Fosca Farewell show. Saturday December 13th at Feeling Gloomy, Bar Academy, Islington. Stage times to come.

The line-up will a five-piece, three-guitar and two synths (plus laptop) assault: Rachel S, Kate D, Tom E, Charley S and myself.


Two DJ gigs of mine, at somewhat shorter notice.

I’m DJ-ing on Sat Sept 20th, at a plush dress-up event called The Magic Theatre. This takes place in an Art Deco ballroom in Bloomsbury. Here’s what their website says about the dress code:

“Ladies: The perfect place for all you Cinderellas and Style Queens, Pink Princesses and Leggy Latex Babes… Audrey Hepburns and Barbarellas, TV’s, Saucy Secretaries and Rock Chicks…Whether you’re a Goth Girl, Dowager, French Maid or Precocious Teen Queen, Marie Antoinette, or Marilyn Monroe, the Magic Theatre is YOUR stage. Gentlemen: Retro Glamour, Uniforms, Lounge Lizards, Gentlemen of the Cloth, Fauns, B-Movie Stars, Prince Charmings, Pirates and Dandies of all kinds…Arise, Sir Galahad, kneel before Zod, come out, come out you Peter Pans, Dick Turpins and Darcys…”

I’ll be doing two DJ sets between 8.30pm and 11.30pm. Ticket details at www.magic-theatre.co.uk.


I’m also putting in a brief DJ appearance at The Beautiful & Damned on Thursday 18th, at The Boogaloo (near Highgate Tube). Martin White & The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra will also be playing. The B&D isn’t ‘my’ club any more, as I’m forever correcting people, but it’s still going strong under the auspices of Miss Red and The Boogaloo team. They’ve reinvented it into a kind of cabaret / club night / music hall booth affair. It’s great to see unwitting Highgate pub goers wander in off the street, and wonder just what weird, time-hopping universe they’ve stepped into. Part Red Room in ‘Twin Peaks’, part Sapphire & Steel…

Back to the diary.

Wednesday evening: to Trash Palace in Wardour Street, for a club night called ‘Polari’. It includes Jamie McLeod’s exhibition of modern dandies, which in turn includes me. Always nice to swan into a club to see a large framed photograph of oneself on the wall. The club also supplies free quiche.

On this occasion, special guest Sebastian Horsley takes the mic, and prowls and provokes and reads from his book, to a packed and appreciative crowd. Including his mother. He’s in his red sequined suit and brandishes a matching sequined bottle of vodka. Well, a sequined bottle cosy.

I say hello to David Benson, Anne Pigalle, Jason Atomic and Ms Ruta, and meet Clayton Littlewood, author of the ‘Soho Stories’ column in the London Paper. The window by his writing desk (or rather,  laptop perch) looked out from the clothes shop he worked at, Dirty White Boy in Old Compton Street. A particularly good spot in London to watch people and gather (or imagine) stories: Soho media types, the famous, the homeless, the vicious queens, the prostitutes, the tourists, the tramps, the old survivors, the new blood. He’s put together a book version: ‘Dirty White Boy: Tales Of Soho’, which I’m rather looking foward to.

More details at his MySpace page, with excerpts, readings and so on: www.myspace.com/dwbsoho

After Polari, Mr Benson takes myself, Mr H, Mr L and his friend Ms Lois for dinner at one of the Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street. Sebastian invites me to an orgy on Friday. I politely decline. I’ll be busy playing indiepop songs in Madrid. Many of which are about, well, not going to orgies.

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