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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Cafe City

Online, there’s now so much comment posing as content it’s hard not to get caught up in it all. Last week I found myself reading the comments on a Guardian column, which was itself commenting on the Daily Mail’s manufactured outrage – more comment –  over Hilary Mantel’s article in the LRB. Which was a comment on the royal family. That’s four levels of commentary, with the royals at the core.  The single quote of the Mantel piece that bears repeating is this:

“That’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content.”

Quite. But it’s not just discourse on the royals. Today I find myself reading comment pieces on Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of the Oscars. Last night I stayed up to see the whole ceremony (redeemed by the divas – Streisand, Bassey, Adele). I watched Mr MacFarlane’s opening section, where he used misfiring jokes to illustrate the sort of jokes that would probably attract negative comments if he made them. Except he was still, technically, making them and putting them out there into the world at one of the biggest media events in the calendar. A cake and eat it situation. True to form, he attracted negative comments. But again – still in a cake-and-eat-it fashion – these media articles still quoted the bad taste jokes. Thus spreading them into the world, maintaining them, giving them longer life. And presumably such columnists got paid for doing so. It’s all getting a bit dishonest – getting pleasure from getting angry about something is not the same as just getting angry. I think that, unless it’s a source of income, one should just steer clear of this massive spiral of self-perpetuating tweeting and column writing and deliberate attraction of kneejerk responses that goes on every day. Myself most of all. I must write more about what I’m actually doing in my own life – away from the internet, that is. If only to, well, add more ‘original content’.


The internet catchprase ‘TL; DR’ (‘too long, didn’t read) should really be ‘TL;DR;SC’. Too long, didn’t read, still commented.


Winter lingers on in London, pleasing no one. Not least those who can’t afford to keep their homes heated for very long per day. So the city’s cafes are packed with those who are lucky enough not to have to work in an office, but not quite lucky enough to be able to keep their own rooms within room temperature.

Finding a seat at the British Library’s café in St Pancras has become impossible. There’s a row of armchairs in front of the King’s Library display, facing the entrance, which are built especially for laptop users, complete with little tables and power points in the arm rests. I’ve been coming to the BL for about ten years and have never ever seen a single one of these chairs going free. I wonder if it’s the same people who use them every day, who queue up outside as the building opens and rush to claim a seat as if they were deckchairs on a cruise liner (and the BL building does indeed resemble a redbrick ocean liner from some angles). I walk in, look around in frustration at the lack of places to sit, and walk out again.

I suppose I should be happy for all the people in this blissful situation. Now more than ever, London seems to be rammed full of students and researchers and academics and writers and, well, anyone whose job just involves bringing their laptop to a seat and a power socket. I don’t begrudge them their café-based, laptop-based lives; I just wish there were more seats in the BL to go around.

One main difference between franchise cafes and independent cafes is the music they play. Franchises have CDs imposed upon them by head offices. I’m convinced every branch of Caffe Nero has been playing exactly the same single compilation CD for the last year. I think Eat has the same CD too. Meanwhile independent cafes, such as greasy spoons, put on the radio. If a Starbucks ever put on the radio it would break their whole world– the whole point of a franchise is its lack of unpredictability.

The British Library café, like many state-funded museum cafes, refrains from music at all: perhaps another reason for its popularity. I wonder if unasked-for music, in this era of choice and no surprises and jukebox musicals and On Demand websites, is becoming much more objectionable as a result. I just hope the staff in franchise cafes don’t mind having to hear the same music all the time. It certainly bothers the hell out of me.

The blandness of franchises is meant to be welcoming – that’s how shopping malls are meant to work. But not in the case of HMV. Today I walk past their Trocadero branch in Piccadilly Circus, and see the ‘CLOSING DOWN SALE’ posters in its windows. It’s the last CD shop in Piccadilly to go. I take a browse among the racks, stickered with knockdown prices, but can’t find anything I want. Which is, I suppose, one reason they’re closing.

I did buy a brand new CD recently – the new My Bloody Valentine album (their first in 22 years). But as with so much New Stuff, I found out about it online, coupled with the information that the band were selling it directly from their own website. So I just clicked through and bought it. Hunting the CD down in a physical shop would seem redundant beyond belief. This is good for the band, in terms of their getting more of a cut of the price, not so good for record shops.

And yet, cheap non-digital entertainment still has its place. Twice last week, in the National Gallery café, and in Costa Piccadilly, I saw groups of teenage tourists not fiddling with their smartphones or laptops at all, but playing cards.

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