Slouching Towards Dalston

Monday 29 May 2017. After the self-pity of before, two pieces of good news. My MA essay on horror fiction came back with a distinction mark. The last assessment is the big dissertation, due in September. From the weighting system, I’ve worked out that in order to get a distinction for the whole MA, the dissertation needs to come in at a minimum of 62. So I shouldn’t need to sweat over things too much, in theory. The mark for the horror essay was especially gratifying as it came from Professor Roger Luckhurst, author of introductions for the Oxford Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and HP Lovecraft: Classic Stories.

The other big news is that I have found and committed to a new rented room. It’s in a Victorian house in Dalston, close to the Rio cinema. The nearest tube is Dalston Kingsland, on the Overground line. The landlady is a friend and fellow Birkbeck graduate. She approached me directly when she heard of my forthcoming eviction, and offered me the room. So that’s one less thing to worry about. I’ll move in mid-July, which will give me time to bevel down 23 years of possessions into a nomadic minimum.

Dalston is a rather different environment to Highgate: more youthful and urban, less of a privileged bubble. I was going to say less leafy too, but I’ve just found out about the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a piece of disused railway line turned into a public garden. It will mean a new life of sorts, frequenting places like the Rio, Dalston Superstore, Café Oto, the Arcola Theatre, and the Burley Fisher bookshop.

The Arcola’s current production is Richard III, the only Shakespeare play with a mention of a Dickon. I took that to be an encouraging sign. Though what really swung it was the closeness to the Rio. It’s only now that I’ve realised how much I’ve always wanted to have an Art Deco cinema on my doorstep. And Dalston has that very London sense of crossing borders in time, the old constantly overlaid with the new.


John Ruskin’s diary for 8th October 1880: ‘No time for anything here but pleasant walks and lessons’. Most of my days have been like that recently. Sitting in libraries, working on the dissertation. The British Library has the best air conditioning. When the temperature soars, as it has of late, that’s where I tend to work. Or lurk.


Earlier activity:

Wednesday 24 May 2017. With Jon S to the Hampstead Everyman for Alien: Covenant. A spin-off of a spin-off, following on from Prometheus, which in turn was a prequel to Alien. I think. I started to stop caring towards the end, things becoming so formulaic that I didn’t even notice how they got rid of the new alien that one is meant to give a hoot about in the last fifteen minutes. It doesn’t help that the creatures’ CGI-ness somehow becomes more obvious when relayed on a spaceship monitor. At that point it looks like a harmless video game character, not the dripping, gooey creations of the 70s and 80s films that had to be built from latex and servo-motors. In the past special effects had to hide the rubber. Now they have to hide the pixels.

Still, up to this point the film is entertaining enough. Michael Fassbinder is always worth watching, and here he meets his ideal date – himself. ‘I know wheat’ is an actual line of dialogue, as is ‘I’ll do the fingering’. And there’s good news for those who think science-fiction films need more scenes of recorder lessons.

Katherine Waterston is the Tough Woman Lead this time (one remembers that Ridley Scott was also behind Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane). Though here Ms Waterston’s short bob hairdo and permanently mournful expression make her character more child-like and sensitive-looking, which is to the film’s credit. She looks like she’d be better off playing bass in a late 80s indie band, rather than battling monsters with mouths like Rexel office staplers.


Thursday 25 May 2017. To Somerset House (specifically the East Wing’s Indigo Rooms), for the private view of Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and Their Digital Descendants. I’d agreed to let the curators use an extract from my diary for a digital screen on the way in. The idea is a different entry from someone’s diary is shown on the screen each day. What I didn’t expect was to see my diary acknowledged more substantially, in a large timeline on a wall. The timeline tells the history of diaries from the invention of writing to the current state of the internet, with the Terminator-like rise of ‘the internet of things’. Along the way there’s Pepys, Anne Frank, and in 1997 the first entry in my own diary. The implication is that mine is thought to be the longest-running of its kind. The earliest web diary is by Carolyn L Burke, who kept hers from 1995 to 2002. She wrote in raw HTML code, as did I at first. Black letters on white.

The bulk of the exhibition manages to address the appeal of paper versus digital, but the print diaries work better emotionally. I feel a shudder when I see the artist Keith Vaughan’s diary is here. It’s a large ledger, opened to the final entry, which records his suicide in the 1970s. Judging by his handwriting, which gets more illegible by the letter, he was writing the entry as the pills took effect:

’65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure. I did some good work…’

Then the letters shrink to a scrawl, and stop. The upside is knowing that he was right about the ‘good work’. Twelve of his paintings are in the Tate’s collection. One of them is currently on display in the Tate Britain’s Queer British Art show.


Sunday 28 May 2017. To the Odeon Covent Garden for Colossal with Ms Shanthi. Anne Hathaway finds her alcoholic antics in a small American town are connected with the appearance of a giant Godzilla-like monster, which is causing havoc on the other side of the world. There’s a serious message here about the effects of heavy drinking, though viewers might be put off by the lurches in tone, from social realist comedy-drama to a Transformers-like sci-fi thriller, and back again. An odd film, but I admire its nerve. It’s a little like Being John Malkovitch in that respect; difficult to imagine it was allowed to be made it all.


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Stepping Out

Sunday 7th February 2016. Days in a chilly city, feeling the nervous hints of climate change. Lots of freezing winter rain, but still no snow. Some confused-looking daffodils poke their heads up by the front of the house.

Mum forwards me a clipping from Country Life (issue dated 6 January 2016), as spotted by Cousin Jim. I’m mentioned in a feature by Matthew Dennison, about diaries. I’m the example of an online diarist, as opposed to a blogger. It’s flattering company to be in: not the other diarists (Woolf, Pepys et al), but the magazine. Going by the adverts, the Country Life readership consists of people who buy and sell English country houses, or who come from English country houses, or those who are just wistfully attracted to that world. I may be far from that world financially, but a part of me is drawn to it aesthetically, in my Vita Sackville-West, Brideshead-loving way. Every article ends with a little silhouette of a peacock.

The article suggests that diaries differ from blogs through the latter’s ‘anticipation of an audience, and in some instances, a commercial intent’. I’d agree with this. Diaries, even public ones, are about stepping out of the world to record an individual’s experience. ‘Blog’, meanwhile, in its original definition, is short for ‘weblog’: a log of things on the web. Early blogs discussed and shared web links. It was all about the linking. Soon the term ‘blogosphere’ appeared, and blogs were seen as units within a new internet community, a textual form of society. When comment boxes appeared in the early 2000s, these took the social aspect further. At this point I tried to join in; one of my misguided attempts to belong. I converted this diary from the raw HTML text it had been, and moved it onto the fun and shiny LiveJournal platform. People could comment on my entries, and did. I felt Part of the Gang. I was a blogger.

But I soon disliked the way comments became an expected part of the reading experience.  Of course people should be free to discuss an entry, but did it have to be in the same place? For better or worse, my style doesn’t work as part of an interactive experience. It’s too stand-offish, too aloof, too wary. In this sense, I suppose I am more of a traditional diarist rather than a blogger. I try to write to step out of the noise, not to join in.

* * *

Monday 8th February 2016.

I’m reading Eternal Troubadour, an extensive new biography of Tiny Tim, the dandyish American ukulele-playing singer, whose single ‘Tip-toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me’ became a huge novelty hit in 1968. I can’t help peppering the margins with exclamation marks: such are the unexpected anecdotes and revelations. Given the wealth of recent discussion about Bowie, it’s fascinating to note that Tiny Tim was often described as ‘camp rock’, a term that was soon applied to Bowie. I’m surprised to discover that the phrase ‘glam rock’ rarely appears in a magazine special on 1972: The Year In Rock, as culled from the archives of NME and Melody Maker. Presumably it came later. In 1972, artists like Bowie, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper are all questioned about the nature of ‘camp’ in their performances. The implication is that they may not ‘mean it’ when they perform – an accusation that Bowie is happy to confirm with his Ziggy Stardust persona.

Tiny Tim, however, did indeed ‘mean it’. He couldn’t help it: he was the same offstage as well as on. According to the book, his widow thinks he had a touch of autism. This made him difficult to work with yet endearingly honest. He had long hair before the Beatles, wore make-up before Bowie, and possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of American popular song, from wax cylinders onwards. A man of childlike gestures, dandyish affectations, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and some startling ideas about career moves, such as his late 70s attempt to appear in a porn film.

The book also states that David Bowie was ‘in the crowd’ for a Tiny Tim appearance at the London Palladium, 30th November 1969. This is a slight error: Bowie was actually on the same bill. There’s photos of them on the web standing in the same line after the show, waiting to shake hands with Princess Margaret. In one, Tiny is showing the Princess his shopping bag, which he carried everywhere, even on stage.

More camp connections: Bowie and Tiny Tim both covered Biff Rose’s ‘Fill Your Heart’, and both duetted with Bing Crosby on TV. Crosby to Tiny: ‘Boy, you could throw a Labrador through that vibrato of yours.’

* * *

Tuesday 9th February 2016.

To Printspace in Kingsland Road, a printing shop with its own gallery. It’s hosting a photography exhibition: Lost In Music, a huge collection of images from four decades of club culture, across the whole spectrum of music. I recognise some of the faces from my own past, at London clubs like Nag Nag Nag, Kash Point and Trash. Senay S has been to it the week before, and tells me I’m in it too, as seen at Trash in the early 2000s. So naturally I make the pilgrimage. But by the time I visit, the display with me in has been moved for reasons of space. There’s a lesson here about vanity, and about the past never hanging around long enough. Still, Senay took a photo when she went:

DE at Trash in Lost in Music show

From (thanks to Senay Sargut)

* * *

Wednesday 10th February 2016.

I meet Mum at the British Library, after which we go for drinks at the Victorian Gothic bar next door, the Gilbert Scott. Mum has just been featured in her own magazine special, a supplement that comes with the current issue of Today’s Quilter. ‘Lynne Edwards MBE: 40 Years of Fabric, Quilts and Classes!’

* * *

Friday 12th February 2016. First essay back from the MA course: 73, which is a Distinction. Interesting that MA grades aren’t Firsts, Seconds or Thirds but Distinction (70 or above), Merit (60-69) or Pass (50-59). Same numbers, different names.

It’s the best mark I could have hoped for. A good start, but with room for improvement. The tutor feedback says I need to work more on engaging with theoretical works. I also seem to have (again) cut things out which I thought could be taken as read. I killed the wrong darlings. Must remember that it’s better to bash the reader over the head several times with one point, than it is to tease with a whole range. Variety is not necessarily the spice of essays.

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Among The Diarists

Tuesday 8th October. To Westminster Reference Library for the launch of A London Year, edited by Nick Rennison and Travis Elborough. It’s a large, beautifully designed, greenish-blue hardback, and collects a variety of London-themed excerpts from real life diaries, arranged so that each day of the year is represented by at least one entry. The book is currently on display in every London bookshop I’ve been wandering into of late. There’s a whole table of them at Waterstones Piccadilly, right near the entrance.

I’m flattered to see my own diary is in the book, eleven excerpts of it, alongside the journals of pretty much everyone I can think of who fits the brief: Pepys, Swift, Keats, Dickens, Woolf, Van Gogh, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, John Betjeman, Tony Benn, Alan Bennett, Derek Jarman, Michael Palin, Brian Eno and Evelyn Waugh.

Clayton Littlewood is also in there, with excerpts from Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho. He’s the only other diarist in the book who’s at the event, though the stars of the show are really Mr Rennison and Mr Elborough. Aside from giving permission, I had no input in the selection. So until I saw a finished copy I didn’t know which entries of mine they were going to use, or that they’d use quite so many. It’s been a pleasant surprise.

At the event, Helen Gordon reads a typically ribald 1940s entry by Joan Wyndham. Ms Gordon had a novel out with Penguin recently (Landfall), and I’m reminded that she’s a good example of a Well Dressed Contemporary Novelist, reading in Jazz Age-style pleated chiffon trousers. Also present are Bill & Alex Mayor, Ms Lettie, Tim B, Andrew Martin, Paul Kelly, Debsey Wykes, Bob Stanley (currently in the middle of promoting his own massive book, Yeah Yeah Yeah, about the history of pop), Emily Bick, and a certain actor who I think I last saw several lifetimes ago, at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Afterwards I repair with a few of the gathering to the rather cosy Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, and stay far too late and drink far too much. Chat with Paul Kelly about the political side of his London films made with Saint Etienne (finally out on DVD as A London Trilogy) : he compares his approach with the records of The Specials – the political message is there if you look for it, but the apolitical side – the art for art’s sake side, I guess – must always come first.

london year

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