Postcards From The Other

Wednesday 3 August 2022. To the Wallace Collection for the exhibition Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts. On the audio guide is a new commentary by Angela Lansbury (I edit this entry after she dies in October, which must make the audio guide one of her last professional credits). There are stills and working drawings from some of the Disney cartoon films, mainly Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Theseare displayed alongside examples of the eighteenth-century Rococo art that inspired them, including some elaborate Sevres vases and a number of paintings from the same period.

The Wallace is home to Fragonard’s The Swing, which is often used to define the meaning of ‘Rococo’ itself. It’s only now that I realise how Disney-esque the painting is, avant la lettre: the privileged girl’s playful abandon, the sugary colours, the sense of timeless delight. Much parodied, there was a spoof cartoon in the Times during the first Covid lockdown, with the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak on the swing, throwing pink pound notes into the air in place of the pink dress. In this exhibition there’s a video screen showing a clip from Frozen, where the sister Anna jumps up in front of the painting to mimic the pose. Next to the screen is the actual painting. While Walter Benjamin might be right about a work of art losing its ‘aura’ in an age of mass reproduction, seeing the Frozen spoof on a screen alongside the actual painting has its own thrill, if a postmodern one. But then, I’m the sort of person who buys National Gallery Covid face masks.

**

Thursday 4 August 2022. With Shanthi to Café Kick in Exmouth Market, followed by drinks in the Shakespeare’s Head, before ending up performing tipsy karaoke at a private booth in Lucky Voice, Upper Street. It’s my first time, I think, since doing karaoke in a proper Tokyo hotel room-style venue, a la Lost in Translation. This was a post-gig activity by the band Spearmint, with whom I played circa 1999 and 2000. I rather like the boast of saying one only does karaoke when in Japan.

It’s too hot for a jacket, so I’m wearing purple braces over a white shirt. David B says this makes me look like a packet of Silk Cut.

**

Sunday 7 August 2022. A recurring conversation in the media is the value of arts degrees, as opposed to studying science or business. By value, they mean the ability for arts graduates to earn large sums of money. The value of nothing and the price of everything, as someone who worked in the arts once said.

In my case, I’m certainly getting used to receiving rejection emails with the phrase: ‘due to the high volume of applications’. That really makes one feel special. It feels like there’s too many people with arts PhDs applying for too few vacancies. I believe it’s called the ‘postdocalypse’.

I’m grateful, though, that I haven’t yet been forced by the government into taking an unlovely job against my will. It’s true that one of the downsides of getting older is that the world is more likely to ignore you. But in some respects, that is one of the benefits.

**

Tuesday 9 August 2022. The Wire magazine asks me to review a book about C86, the cassette compilation of new bands put out by the NME in 1986. ‘C86’ soon came to mean a whole genre: jangly, tinny guitars, rendered in a scratchy indie rock style. On the cassette this was exemplified by bands like the Wedding Present and the Bodines. The problem with the term was that many of the other bands on the C86 tape didn’t sound that way at all. They were more arty, avant-garde and strange, more like Captain Beefheart than Orange Juice or The Smiths.

I learn from the new book that one of these artier bands, The Shrubs, was fronted by Nick Hobbs, with whom I once shared a Japanese hotel room. He managed Spearmint when I played with them, and was once impressed with me not for playing guitar but for recognising a photo on a restaurant wall of Derek Jarman’s Dungeness cottage. The implication was: what was I doing playing melodic indie pop guitar (and not very well) when I knew about Difficult Art?

This was long before Jarman became the brand he is today. Even normal people like Derek Jarman now. He’s become like Southwold, Stewart Lee, and Brutalism.

Also learned from the book: a former tambourine player with Primal Scream calls Bobby Gillespie’s autobiography a work of fiction, made to make the singer look good.

I think that’s the case with all autobiography, this diary included. There is vanity in every creative act, even when indulging in self-pity. Consciously or unconsciously, all memoirs are full of fiction, just as all novels are full of memory.

The author of the C86 book, Nige Tassell, has also written a whole book about the football transfer window, whatever that is.

**

Sunday 21 August 2022. I give a paper at an Aubrey Beardsley conference, ‘AB 150’, at St Bride’s Foundation, off Fleet Street. I enjoy the day, with the nice Beardsley aficionados, one of whom links Beardsley’s pierrot characters to costumes used by David Bowie and Harry Styles, another of whom references the film Suspiria.  I reference Donald Trump, Brigid Brophy, and the film Carry on Loving.  We go for drinks at the Punch Tavern, and I end up joining the Oscar Wilde Society afterwards.

**

Thursday 25 August 2022. To the Waiting Room venue, in the basement of the Three Crowns pub, Stoke Newington. I’m here to see Charley Stone play with her own band, which she calls The Actual Band. Also on the bill are Panic Pocket: very good, intriguing and original. I chat to old friends, some not seen for years: Anna Spivack, Debbie Smith and Atalanta K, Tim Baxendale, David Barnett. I share the tube journey home with Debbie and Atalanta, who mention the documentary film that they’re both in, Rebel Dykes,about the 1980s lesbian subcultures in London.

**

Friday 26 August 2022. Treated to a kind lunch at Le Sacre Coeur in Islington, by Roz Kaveney, who knows I don’t have much money at the moment. By a coincidence Roz is also in Rebel Dykes, proving that lesbian clubs of the 80s accepted trans women too. I watch the documentary itself in the evening, via the Channel 4 streaming platform. It’s exactly the sort of alternative, subcultural film that Channel 4 used to stand for, before the era of Big Brother made it into just another mainstream channel. 

Rebel Dykes depicts the busy London squat scene of the 80s, before the law was changed to make squatting illegal. This was when London, like Channel 4, was a place for the displaced. Given the current cost of living crisis, I wonder if the law will have to change again, and a new age of squatting begin.

**

Sunday 28 Aug 2022. To a mini festival in Spa Fields off Exmouth Market. There’s stalls selling food and clothes and so on, and some rock bands playing on a small stage. I’m made aware of just how visibly middle-aged the audience is, perhaps because I’ve not been to a daylight gig for a while. But then, so many of the practitioners of the genre are greying too: Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury this year at the age of 80. Rock music now feels more claimed by the older than the young. 

The C86 book, which I’m clearly not finished with, reveals that even some of the fairly obscure indie groups of the 1980s have recently reformed, the members now in their late 50s or older. This is often because there’s a proliferation of small festivals who want to book them, particularly abroad. The phrase ‘has been’ is now itself a kind of has-been. If fame just means attracting an audience, even a small one, you can stay famous forever. Or at least, for as long as YouTube exists.

After the festival I go for drinks at the very pleasant Victorian pub The Peasant, in St John Street, with Travis Elborough, Alex Mayor, and Dave Callahan, who is in the C86 book, being a member of the Wolfhounds. We are thrown out of the pub at 9pm, not because we are rowdy but because it’s a Sunday.

**

Saturday 3 September 2022. Getting older myself. I spend my 51st birthday in Bexhill on Sea, having lunch in the De La Warr Pavilion, one of those places I’ve always meant to visit. I haven’t been abroad since 2009, partly due to lack of money but also because there’s a lot of places in the UK I’ve still not ticked off.

Then afternoon tea at the wonderfully crumbling Royal Victoria hotel in St Leonards-on-Sea with Kitty Fedorec. This is close to the Marine Court Art Deco apartment block, one of my dream places to live if I had the choice, the other being the Barbican. This is followed by a game of mini golf in Hastings with her Kitty’s friends. After which we go for cheese bingo in a nearby pub, which turns out not to be a joke. I’m surrounded by wry geeks and bohemians in their 30s and 40s, one of whom is carrying a bag of vinyl albums, including Edward Woodward Sings.

**

Thursday 8 Sept 2022. The Queen dies at 96. I was convinced she would beat her mother’s age of 101, given the progress of medicine. But then, unlike her mother she did have rather more to do than drink gin and watch racehorses. 

I go to the Shakespeare’s Head with David Barnett and try HMQ’s reputed tipple: Dubonnet and gin. Two parts Dubonnet to 1 part gin, with a slice of lemon plus ice.HMQ, who was not much of a drinker, inherited this choice from her mother, who was. Quite a 1920s drink, in fact, also associated with Noel Coward, and a reminder that the Queen Mother was of the Bright Young Things generation. The drink itself is not unlike absinthe. Unexpectedly strong, which seems apt. I don’t have more than one.

**

Saturday 10 September 2022. Trying to get used to having a new King, without thinking of spaniels. The Prince Charles Cinema in Soho has affixed a notice to its door: ‘No, we are not changing our name.’

**

Monday 12 September 2022. To the Barbican for The Forgiven, an Evelyn Waugh-esque melodrama about decadent white people in Morocco. I’m slightly shocked to see that film has an 18 certificate, not for violence or gore or sex but for scenes of drug use, namely cocaine. There’s some footage of Tangier early on. I think I recognise the El Minzah hotel, where there might still be a photo above the bar of me and Shane MacGowan. 

**

Wednesday 21 Sept 2022. I read the comic memoir Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Kobabe is a young American cartoonist who mentions the music of David Bowie as part of their path to coming out as non-binary. Their other cultural references include Harry Styles. Harry Styles is not David Bowie, but there certainly seems to be a gap in the current world of role models for a Bowie-esque figure, a pretty male who can combine mainstream pop music with acting and fashion and being just unmanly enough – but too strange that he can’t appear on the cover of Grazia. Mr Styles has done his best to take up that position.

Tonight I see the big new Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, with Shanthi and Rob, bumping into Erol Alkan in the lobby beforehand.

Moonage Daydream recycles a fair amount of footage I’ve seen before, from Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor to the Mavis Nicholson interview. Easily found on the internet, but it’s nice to see these ancient clips cleaned up and stretched across the giant IMAX screen. Mavis Nicholson died recently, the same day as the other queen. She specialised in getting the best out of unusual men: Quentin Crisp, Kenneth Williams, Tom Baker. If I had my way, the IMAX would show a whole season of her interviews. The venue would be renamed IMAVE.

After the film Shanthi takes my photo in the IMAX Exit 1 subway, where someone has scrawled on the wall ‘PANSY MOB’.

**

Friday 23 September 2022. Still on a Bowie tip, I find myself going down a Bowie / camp research rabbit-hole. In the film there’s footage of Bowie fans in the early 70s, queuing up outside one of his concerts. They chat to the camera about Bowie, saying ‘he’s so camp’, and it’s meant in a positive, even hip sense.

I find the 1972 Melody Maker Bowie interview, the one where he says he’s gay. In the article the journalist, Michael Watts, calls Bowie’s presentation ‘camp as a row of tents’. In 2006 Watts wrote about his memories of doing the interview, and wondered if he actually invented the phrase ‘camp as a row of tents’. It would be nice to think so, but I can’t resist doing the research to find out. This is what prevents me from being a regular journalist, on top of my slowness. I can’t make some sweeping claim and let it stand with no citations, no evidence.

According to Gary Simes’s exhaustive article ‘Gay Slang Lexicography’ (2005), ‘camp as a row of tents’ is at least as old as 1948, and may be Australian in its origins. Barry Humphries was using ‘camp as a row of tents’ in the 1960s, which I can believe, while the Times used the phrase in 1968, to describe the TV series The Avengers.

‘Camp’ also appears in another significant piece of Bowie journalism: Ray Coleman’s concert review for Melody Maker, 15 July 1972. There, Bowie is called ‘the undisputed king of camp rock’, combining the Velvet Underground with ‘a Danny La Rue profile’.

I wonder if young people who now look to Bowie as they look to Harry Styles would get both these references. Perhaps Todd Haynes should follow up his documentary on the Velvet Underground with one on Danny La Rue.

**

28 September 2022. So hypersensitive to language that I take against emails beginning with ‘Hi’ rather than ‘Dear’. ‘Hi’ is shrill, mercenary: a salesman who doesn’t care who you are. ‘Dear’ is an oasis of gentle.

**

30 September 2022. The last time I bought a packet of cigarettes it would have been Sobranie Cocktails. I’m delighted to be told by Kate Levey, Brigid Brophy’s daughter, that Brophy smoked them in her nursing home.

**

10 October 2022. What keeps me alive right now is my taste. One current passion is books and bookshops and indeed books about books and bookshops. I’ve read at least three such books from the latter category this year: Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of The; Robin Ince’s Bibliomaniac,and Emma Smith’s Portable Magic. I’m also more fascinated than ever with elegance in English prose. Recently I watched a documentary about the history of the BBC and found myself drawn to a description of Winston Churchill’s manner of speaking as ‘Gibbons-esque’.

The well-honed phrase is usually best put to service in a song lyric or in a immersive narrative, style being nothing without content. But not always. Truman Capote said of Firbank that ‘all he had was style, bless him’. Sometimes it can be more than enough to just enjoy the performance of another mind.

**

Saturday 15 October 2022. Current projects: an academic chapter on Angela Carter for Bloomsbury Books, plus a novel set among studenty dandy types. I’m trying to put the camp in ‘campus novel’. One character is based on Sebastian Horsley, which seems like such an obvious thing to do. I think of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford preserving their own dandyish friends in their fiction.

**

17 October 2022. Lots of coughing about. Mum in Suffolk is now poorly with Covid for the first time, having avoided it entirely until now. Two and a half years on, though, and with the vaccines well established, one’s anxiety over the virus is a lot less acute. [Indeed, Mum goes on to recover more quickly than I did]. People are now much more worried about the cost of living, climate change, and Russia.

**

18 October 2022. I decide to get my thesis bound, choosing the style of Firbank’s first editions. Black cloth hardback, gold lettering. A reminder to myself of what I can do, and what I’ve managed to do, and that for better or worse I’m now a creature of books.

**

20 October 2022. Liz Truss follows several months of campaigning to be prime minister with barely a month in the actual job. The political news in the UK is getting so ridiculous that I feel like having a one-person riot. It will not last long but it will be very well dressed.

**

24 October 2022. I think I’ve just about got the hang of the author-date reference system now. This is from the Angela Carter article. I don’t trust referencing software, preferring to bring as much manual labour to the task as possible. It’s probably another way that I’m too slow to do this for a living, but I’m pleased with the results.

**

28 October 2022. I admire professional writers who take their time, or at least are allowed to take their time. Alan Hollinghurst taking six years to write a new book, Donna Tartt taking ten. But I also admire writers who produce regularly but who manage to do so without using a computer. At Housman’s bookshop in Kings Cross I treat myself to Ronald Blythe’s new book Next to Nature. This is a collection of his weekly Word from Wormingford column for the Church Times, which ran from the 1990s up till his retirement in 2017 aged 95. The religious content, which I’m not so interested in, is offset with Blythe’s reflections on nature, literature, and history, which I am interested in. I’m fascinated with the circumstances behind the writing: Blythe living alone since the 1970s in a lone house up a long track in the Stour Valley countryside, yet never learning to drive. He typed up his books and journalism on a typewriter and sent the copy off by post, and kept doing so into the 2010s. With writers these days churning out words like the wind, I find a sense of slowness, of polish and pause, all the more precious.

**

Saturday 5 November 2022. The computers at Birkbeck Library respond to a user logging into the system with a pop-up message of confirmation. For ten years, I used to see: ‘Dickon Edwards: Student’. Now that I’ve moved on to be an Associate Research Fellow, which is a form of unpaid affiliation, the system labels me as ‘Dickon Edwards: Other’. I read far too much into this official designation of otherness.

Going through old clutter, I find an out of date CV. Under ‘Other Work’ there is a long list. I suppose this is part of my problem. I have done too much Other Work, and not enough Normal Work. The list includes the following.

  • Custodian, Kenwood House (English Heritage), 1998 to 2000. Essentially a glorified security guard, standing around in beautiful rooms full of beautiful paintings and furniture. I had to ensure visitors didn’t damage or steal anything, but I was also required to give information about the art. It meant for a crash course in Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Gainsborough, which I loved.
  • Shop assistant, Archway Video DVD & VHS library, Archway Road, 2004 to 2007. I actually rebuilt the shop’s website myself, using the program Dreamweaver. Free access to films, which was bliss. And the shop was 5 minutes’ walk from my bedsit in Southwood Avenue.
  • Guest columnist for Green Wedge, political website. One-off.
  • Blogger for Latitude Festival.
  • Gig reviewer for Drowned in Sound.
  • Concert guitarist with the band Spearmint. 1999-2000. Toured the UK, Sweden and Japan. Amicably sacked for inability.
  • Concert guitarist with Scarlet’s Well. 2004. Amicably sacked for inability after 1 gig, which suggests my guitar skills declined even further after Spearmint. Today I don’t own a guitar at all, having taken the hint.    
  • DJ at club nights ‘The Beautiful and Damned’, at the Boogaloo, Highgate, and at my own night in Camden, ‘Against Nature’. Also DJ’d at the British Library, Latitude Festival, Last Tuesday Society, Curious Invitation, White Mischief, How Does It Feel to be Loved, and other club nights. Have since thrown out my DJ CDRs along with my guitar.
  • Model for the cover of the academic book Materializing Queer Desire by Elisa Glick.
  • Extra in the films Shaun of the Dead (zombie in shirt and tie), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (party guest in suit and tie), and Gambit (restaurant diner in suit and tie).
  • Life model at art classes – somewhere near Holloway Women’s Prison.
  • Personal assistant, or ‘New Romantic Butler’ as one of his friends put it, to the musician Shane MacGowan, mainly for two one-off trips to Tangier, and one to New York.
  • Standing for election to Haringey Council, Highgate ward, as a Green Party candidate (May 2006). Wore heavy make-up.
  • Invited as guest of honour for an exhibition on menswear at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands. Lent one of my suits to go on display, as an example of a modern dandy.
  • Invited to be sole UK performer at the 2008 Stockholm International Poetry Festival.

And these are just the things I haven’t put on my current CV.

The world of CVs expects all people to choose one thing – a ‘career’ – aged 18, and to stick to that to the grave. I’ve never been like that. I now have a BA (1st class), MA (distinction), and a PhD, and four academic prizes, on top of my varied list of experiences. And still the job market views me as, well, too ‘Other’.

I don’t know really what to do. Except to carry on looking and applying, and to carry on writing.

 **

Thursday 10 November 2022. To the Vue cinema near Angel for Bros, an American mainstream romcom about gay men. There’s a reference in the film to You’ve Got Mail, but the main character is no Meg Ryan. He doesn’t stop being neurotic long enough for the audience to care about him. His love interest, the Tom Hanks figure I suppose, is physically handsome but utterly dull. But both actors play well enough, and the ‘com’ is certainly all there, if not the ‘rom’. There’s plenty of one-liners, and I find myself laughing aloud. But it’s one of those films where I come away wondering what could have been improved.

**

Saturday 12 November 2022. Wearing a linen suit due to the unseasonal warmth. If the world is ending, one might as well look one’s best for it.

Looking for a seat on a train today, I walk past a young couple. She bursts into a manic giggle. He says, ‘What da f— was that?’ Still got it.

Saturday 19 November 2022. One of the most quoted lines from Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ is:

‘It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical.’

There have been many refutations of this claim ever since, often indicating the many political and subversive uses of camp, from drag queens at the Stonewall riots, to Donald Trump’s use of the Village People song ‘YMCA’ at his rallies. Sontag herself changed her mind on this position in a 1975 interview. Her own example of political camp was Mae West, arguing that she used camp as a form of feminism.

Today I watch Joe Lycett’s new stand-up show on video. He manages to blend mischief, pranks, and camp smut with a very contemporary form of social activism. His style of camp speaking is old-fashioned in the mode of Kenneth Williams, yet his material is closer to that of Michael Moore. Although Michael Moore is unlikely to refer to Lisa Scott-Lee from Steps.

If you need proof that camp can be political, Joe Lycett is it.

**
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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’.

vandashell

***

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.

kenparkgardens

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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.

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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.

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

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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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All You Need Is Curiosity

Sunday 10th January 2016.

Sometime during the late 90s, when Orlando were on tour. A catcall from a schoolchild, in my direction: ‘Is that… David Bowie?’

(Answer: Sort of…)

Today, David Bowie dies.

I was going to start this week’s diary with an explanation of a term I used last week – ‘queer’. One reader asked what exactly I meant by this, given it’s such a slippery term. ‘Do you mean gay?’ Well, yes and no.

‘Queer’ used to be a pejorative insult for gay people, from the early 20th century up to the 1980s. Then it started to be reclaimed by gay rights activists as a positive term, particularly as a more defiant and politicised form of identity.

Today, though, I have to admit it’s more complicated. I tend to use it to mean a look or attitude that plays with conventions of gender and sexuality, but also with an anti-authoritarian air. I forget, though, that some people (particularly young people) now identify with ‘queer’ as a separate identity away from gay, hence the use of ‘Q’ in the community acronym of ‘LGBTQI’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex).

In academia, there’s also queer studies and queer theory. These tend to denote a certain troubling of conventions in society by non-heterosexual activity, a scrutinising of what ‘normal’ means – ‘to queer’ as a verb. ‘Queer’ in this sense is a spanner in the works, a critique, a pointing at the core from the margins. It is the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the man behind the curtain is paid attention to.

All this has a direct connection to David Bowie. He is a good example of someone who was not necessarily gay but who definitely could be read as a queer icon. His lasting relationships may have been with women, and he was more or less content with his gender, but he very much put out and amplified queer signals in his work, and these were of incalculable importance. To those looking out for such signals, they were nothing less than a lifeline. Whether it was the dress he wore on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, his use of androgynous make-up and homoerotic poses in his Ziggy Stardust phase, or his dragging up in the Boys Keep Swinging video, Bowie was queer enough.

He could be explicit about the q-word in his lyrics, too. There’s the following line from his 1993 single ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, written for the BBC TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi novel. I’ve only now realised that it also nods to the Lou Reed song ‘Vicious’:

Screaming along in South London / Vicious but ready to learn / Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer / Sometimes but always in vain

* * *

This week, the wealth of coverage of Bowie’s death provoked a couple of grumpy letters in the press. Complaining about an excess of Bowie articles in the Independent, one reader wrote, ‘Anybody under 40 probably didn’t know who he was’. Another saw little value in ‘pages of nostalgic outpourings about musicians… I suggest your editors stop trying to relive their youth.’

I find this fascinating, partly as a study of sheer solipsism, but also as a gauge of the way culture and celebrity are subjective. To whom does Bowie’s death matter, and can this be turned into a proportionate amount of news coverage? What have people heard of? What do people care about? To quote ‘Hello Spaceboy’, ‘it’s confusing these days…

Certainly, the disgruntled letters are disproved by the content of the articles. True, there’s been lots of greying nostalgia (which I have no problem with), but there’s also been tributes by young musicians and artists too. Among those who cite him as an influence are La Roux, Grimes, Janelle Monae, Florence Welch, and Desiree Akhavan, the thirty-year-old director of Appropriate Behaviour, my favourite film of last year. She says, ‘I listen to ‘Modern Love’ at least once a day. It happens to contain the secret to successful filmmaking: ‘It’s not really work / It’s just the power to charm.’”

As it is, I don’t think the media coverage has been excessive at all. At least, not compared to the last Royal Baby.

Besides, music connects directly to the emotions. So when a popular musician dies, there’s obviously going to be lots of emotional expression. Why is that hard to understand?

As for my own favourite Bowie songs, there’s the aforementioned ‘Buddha of Suburbia’, released at a time when he was considered to be artistically treading water. I remember it sounded then, as it does now, as vintage Bowie, pure and simple.

I adore Hunky Dory, particularly ‘Changes’, and ‘Queen Bitch’. I love his Plastic Soul phase, especially ‘Young Americans’. From his 80s commercial pop phase, I’m fond of ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’. I love the way the former is used in the 2012 film Frances Ha, while Greta Gerwig is running through New York (itself an homage to the 80s film Mauvais Sang).

Though I’ve never tried to explicitly resemble him aesthetically, I know there’s a subconscious influence at work. I bleach my hair. I have a dandyish, Modern Weirdo look. Ergo, I owe a debt to Bowie.

It’s also important to remember he wasn’t perfect. Despite some of the more messianic pronouncements this week, Bowie was never a sacred cow. His late 80s albums and Tin Machine records (late 80s to early 90s) were given an extremely hard time by the critics. Bowie survived as long as he did by being a first-rate manipulator of as much information as possible – as evidenced in the way he kept his illness secret. He couldn’t stop the bad reviews, but I noticed how he played down his flops in the authorised V&A David Bowie Is… show.

Something else, then: he welcomed and encouraged praise. He liked being a star, and took himself seriously as one. What’s commendable is that this is a more honest trait than the false modesty which society usually requires (Oscar Wilde was another expert, Lady Gaga is a current example). Make no mistake: most people who make art do want praise from as many people as possible. It’s not selling out or vain, it’s basic self-validation.

What isn’t in question is his cultural influence. If the message of the Beatles was ‘all you need is love’, Bowie’s was ‘all you need is curiosity’. Another line from ‘Modern Love’ springs to mind: ‘But I try…’

He tried so many different styles and looks and genres and personae, and kept trying. Why did he do all the acting roles too (some of which, again, were better than others)? Why is he there at the beginning of The Snowman, introducing a children’s cartoon? Because he liked to try things. He tried. That’s inspiring in itself. I rather liked him.

* * *

Monday 11th January 2016.

I’m reading Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs (2009). It’s a witty post 9/11 tale of Midwest America. Some favourite lines:

‘Death would come to me – I knew this from reading British poetry’.

‘Having no dog in the race doesn’t keep people from having extremely large cats’.

* * *

Thursday 14th January 2016.

MA class tonight, on The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m intrigued that it’s dedicated to the son McCarthy had at the age of 65, and so comes with an older parent’s fear of not being able to see their offspring reach adult life. The Road is so relentlessly bleak and grim that I can’t say I enjoy it, though I do admire it.

* * *

Friday 15th January 2016.

To the Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the exhibition Samuel Pepys – Plague, Fire, Revolution. The one exhibit it doesn’t have is Pepys’s actual diary, due to his will forbidding it from leaving his old Cambridge college. But what is does have is a richness of everything else from the era: animated presentations of the Great Fire, excerpts from the diary on touchscreens, Charles 1st’s ornate gloves from the day of his execution, a pair of green glass spectacles Pepys wore when he thought the diary was making him blind (it wasn’t), and the shorthand codebook he used to encrypt his writing. When a Victorian scholar came to decode the diaries for the first time, he spent years trying to work out the code from scratch. It’s hard to imagine how he must have felt when he finally noticed the codebook was there too, just inches away on a different shelf.

Something I have in common with Pepys, and indeed Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams: not only diarists of London, but of spells in Tangier too.

* * *

Afterwards, dinner with my brother Tom and friends. We try the new Jamie Oliver restaurant in Nelson Road. Quite pleasant, food agreeable. The restaurant has the feel of a converted warehouse: spacious, high-ceilings, exposed brickwork, plenty of room. Perhaps a little too spacious for midwinter, though, and many of the diners keep their coats on.

Modern eating. My veggie burger arrives on a wooden chopping board, with the chips in a small tin pail.

Tom’s friend E teaches photography to schoolchildren in East London. ‘It’s hard to get them to do any work. We’re trying to get the examination board to accept selfies.’ This is not meant as a joke.

Taking selfies and using social media is a form of work, though: the work one must do in order to keep one’s friends. The problem for teens is when the need to fit in eclipses the need to do well at school. The technology involved may be new, but the dilemma is eternal.


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