Tuesday 1st May 2018. Worked on Chapter 1 of the doctorate. Treated myself to Lorrie Moore’s book of essays, See What Can Be Done. The title is from Bob Silver, her commissioning editor at the New York Review of Books. He would send her a book to write about, and his accompanying note would end with the phrase, ‘See what can be done’. It’s a good motto full stop.
Wednesday 2nd May 2018. I haven’t owned a television for years. I have a desktop PC which accesses the house wifi (included in the rent), and it can play DVDs and CDs too. Plus there’s the Rio cinema across the road. Sometimes I subscribe to Netflix or NOW, where the video streaming is perfect quality. That’s more than enough entertainment. Who needs television?
One feels overstuffed with culture. And yet there’s still books which one wants to read but which seem to be unavailable, even to British libraries. James McCourt’s Time Regained is one.
For a mad moment I nearly went to see the new Avengers film. But then I remembered that I’ve not seen most of the others in the series, and more to the point the ones I saw I didn’t much care for. I don’t like superhero films, unless they have the self-contained stylistic approach of the Nolan Batman trilogy. The Marvel films are more about building up a whole universe, then getting as many people as possible to commit to it. I have enough trouble comprehending the universe I’m already in.
Thursday 3rd May 2018. To Colvestone Primary School, transformed into a polling station for today’s local elections. The school is behind Ridley Road market; Pevsner has it listed as built in 1862. I think of how my mother once taught at a school in Dalston in the 1960s, though not this one.
The school has a series of overtly triangular roofs, like blocky Toytown pyramids. Or as Mr P says, ‘unusually florid Gothic’.
I wonder about the emotion of voting after moving house. New possession, new legitimacy. Â ‘It’s my first time’, I tell the people at the trestle tables, in the room with the booths. They are not impressed with this information, and find it no trouble to refrain from bursting into applause.
One card is to elect two councillors to represent the ward of Dalston, within the wider area of Hackney. The other is to elect a Hackney Mayor. I vote Green in all three, and give my second preference vote for Mayor to Vernon Williams, an independent candidate.
Hackney is a Labour stronghold, with Diane Abbot the local MP. Today, Labour triumph on the council, while Labour’s Philip Glanville is re-elected as Mayor. I note that he is married to another man, an American. This might still be controversial in a Prime Minister, or a President, but it raises no eyebrows on the Kingsland Road.
In Dalston, the difference between the two winning Labour candidates and the Green who made 3rd place was a mere 21 votes. It is nice that I have moved to a ward where the Greens are properly electable.
Evening: To Birkbeck in Gordon Square. Over the next two weeks all the students in my PhD ‘cohort’ have to give a ten minute presentation about their thesis, by way of a status report. I link my study of Firbank – the first artist to be called camp – to the rise of camp in politics (Trump, Boris Johnson, Putin riding a horse topless). I also highlight Zadie Smith’s article on Mark Bradford in her book Feel Free, which has the idea of camp as a strategy by black American slaves to mock power, in the form of a dance. I now think she means the cakewalk rather than the shim-sham. There’s quite a lot of scholarship on the cakewalk in this respect (eg in Moe Meyer’s Poetics and Politics of Camp).
Friday 4th May 2018. Read Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask. This is a 1990s book with a cult following, yet is currently hard to get. Something of a niche genre: a lesbian detective tale, set in contemporary Australia and told entirely in verse. The form and setting is unusual, and keeps me intrigued for a while. But once the novelty wears off, I’m just left with a straightforward murder mystery. I think studying literature with a capital L has made me intolerant of genre. Whether it’s crime, or sci-fi, or horror. Genre has to tick boxes. I find reading a genre novel is like banging my head on the ceiling. Though I may just be reading the wrong books. One could argue that literary fiction has to consciously avoid the trappings of genre, and that is a kind of box-ticking too. Indeed, modernism has certain boxes to tick, as does modern art. Not doing something is still doing something.
Saturday 5th May 2018. I’ve calculated that I’ve written 33,430 words of the PhD, including footnotes. This is ahead of my target, which is cheering. A PhD tends to be about 80,000. In theory, I could finish it in three years. We shall see.
Sunday 6th May 2018. I watch a documentary on Netflix, Get Me Roger Stone. Mr Stone is an American political advisor who tends to work for Republican Presidential candidates. His experience dates back to working for Richard Nixon as a teenager. Now in his sixties, Stone played a major part in the Trump campaign. His speciality is ‘dirty tricks’: spreading damaging information about opponents and rivals. What interests me is that Mr Stone favours a flamboyant dandyish image: white suits especially. Less usual is that he also goes in for tattoos and bodybuilding. On his back is a tattoo of Nixon’s face. He gets it out at the slightest invitation.
If Trump is naïve camp, Stone is gangster camp. He takes pleasure in being thought ruthless. I recall how Mr Blair thought of himself as a good person, even during Iraq. Is it better to style oneself as a good man with blind spots, or a bad man with self-awareness? Either is arrogance. What has happened with Trump is that impulsive arrogance has proved more appealing than the anodyne blankness of career politicians.
Today, you can push hatred like a drug. Stone says that he believes ‘hate is a more powerful motivator than love’. This is truly depressing. Perhaps it is true of what’s going on right now, but I hope it passes. Better to think of what Burroughs wrote in his last days, despite his love of guns, despite all the violence in his books:
‘Only thing can resolve conflict is loveâ€¦ Pure love. Most natural painkiller what there is.’
Monday 7th May 2018. To the Rio to see A Quiet Place, starring Emily Blunt. This turns out to be a sci-fi thriller, albeit made on a small scale and indeed an intensely quiet one. The planet has been ravaged by unkind CGI monsters, again. But the twist here is that this particular army of gooey fiends attack anything that makes a sound, however small. So Emily Blunt and family have to spend the film in a remote farmhouse, trying to make contact with survivors while keeping the Mars branch of the Noise Abatement Society at bay. Conveniently for them, their eldest daughter is deaf, so they all know how to speak in sign language. Conveniently for the audience, the sign language is subtitled. As with reading The Monkey’s Mask, I find an unusual and original style can only go so far. The content is soon revealed as utterly conventional, and that’s not enough.
This should be the credo of any artist, and any writer: you must strive to produce original content in an individual style. You have to have both.
Tuesday 8th May 2018. The new home secretary, Sajid Javid, is photographed standing in the street with his legs apart in a ludicrous ‘power pose’. Some minion at Conservative HQ has thought this to be a good idea, because George Osborne and Teresa May were similarly photographed in recent years.
I keep thinking of an image from the era of punk rock. A shot of three young men posing in an alley with their legs spread apart like inverse letter ‘v’s. It is the sleeve to the first album by the Clash.
Thursday 10th May 2018. To Birkbeck in Gordon Square. First I have a supervisory meeting about my PhD. Joe B is more or less happy with my first of five chapters, representing 18,000 words of work. He thinks the chapter needs a day or so more to improve one section, but can be then put aside. The next step is to work on the second chapter, submitting half of it at the end of June.
Then to the Keynes Library for the rest of the class presentations. I did mine the week before, so I can now take it easy and just be the supportive audience.
Finally there’s a lecture on contemporary sci-fi by Chris Pak. His authors include Cory Doctorow and Kim Stanley Robinson. Drinks on Marchmont Street afterwards, followed by a late night bar in Somers Town. An unusual evening of extended drinking and socialising for me. It’s the kind I used to do all the time, but which these days requires two days to recover. At home I tipsily flirt online with TH in New York, who’s also in a bar, and that helps.
Saturday 12th May 2018. To the ICA to see a French film, The Wild Boys, aka Les Garcons Sauvages. Written and directed by Bertrand Mandico. Five schoolboys commit an act of murder and sexual violence, and are sent to a tropical island as punishment, where strange transformations await. I’d read that the film was based on the William Burroughs novel, but it turns out to be an original work. That said, there’s also some business here involving sexualised phallic plants, which appears in Burroughs.
Another connection is Peter Pan. Burroughs thought of a more sexual twist on JM Barrie’s Lost Boys, and this film reminds one of the way Peter Pan is often played by a woman. Here, all the boys are acted by women, in short haircuts, ties and braces.
In Burroughs’s letters to Brion Gysin, he’s not very keen on women: ‘They are a perfect curse. The ‘wild boy’ book is even more anti-female by total omission.’
After the book The Wild Boys was published in the early 70s, Burroughs was in discussion with a film producer with a view to turning the text into an explicit adaptation. But he thought that it was ‘about a world without women. And that’s a difficult subject for a film. No women no trouble no problems.’ This rather overlooks the many films without female characters, explicit or otherwise, which still manage to be stuffed with ‘trouble’. But anyway.
Perhaps a Wild Boys with girls is the only way to out-shock the shocking Mr B. The film has touches of Kathy Acker – who styled herself as a female Burroughs – as well as Angela Carter at her most perverse. It also evokes Ifâ€¦. by shifting from black and white to colour for no reason, other than to enhance the idea of a hermetically sealed dream. Other films that spring to mind are Fassbinder’s Querelle and Lord of the Flies. Especially, Summer Vacation 1999, the Japanese film in which an isolated group of schoolboys are played by young women. Manga comics, too. Perhaps at times the film becomes too French, even for me: there are rather a lot of shots of people smoking cigarettes in that very Serge Gainsbourg way, the angle of the cigarette forever beingÂ just so.
I can only find a few English reviews of the film, though one published in Film Comment, by Jonathan Romney, namechecks Ronald Firbank, because of the effect of a bubble-like world created through its own imagery and language. So that was me sold.
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s for their 4th birthday party. Much pink champagne doled out by Sophie Parkin (who gets a thank you in the Barry Miles biography of William Burroughs, I’ve just noticed.)
The evening has a theme of pink, to denote getting out of the red of debt, but only just. I end up in a conversation about the camp of politicians, arguing that if Amber Rudd was as camp as Boris Johnson, she’d have kept her job. Sontag calls camp ‘instant character’. What else are people like Trump, Johnson, and Rees-Mogg but instant characters?
Sunday 13 May 2018. Watch the first episode of Patrick Melrose, the TV adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch. A summer or two ago I read all five of the Edward St Aubyn novels. They’re comfortingly short, with a crisp and witty prose style, though the subject matter is sometimes harrowing, even disturbing.
Mr St Aubyn is dyslexic, as am I. This explains the tightness of his prose: dyslexics often over-compensate in their revising. The downside is that it takes longer to generate prose in the first place. The upside is that one tends to polish one’s words within an inch of their life, the better to detect any errors. In Bad News, the second book which became the episode broadcast tonight, Patrick Melrose comments on his need for carrying an ‘overcoat book’, a paperback of decent literature, slim enough to fit into a coat pocket, though one which he takes forever to actually read. One example he mentions is Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.
The TV adaptation shows off yet another use of the Art Deco lobby of Senate House in Malet Street. In the episode the lobby becomes an upmarket restaurant in New York. In real life, it’s the building where I go for my weekly sessions with a study skills advisor, with view to managing my various problems, such as dyslexia.
Monday 14 May 2018. ‘His hilarity was like a scream from a crevasse’ – Graham Greene, TheÂ Heart of the Matter.
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Tags: a quiet place, bertrand mandico, birkbeck, camp, dorothy porter, Edward St Aubyn, frenchness, the monkey's mask, the wild boys, vout-o-reenee's, william s burroughs