The Strange Risk of the Sarcastic Catcall

Monday 10th December 2018. One reason for carrying with this diary, or carrying on with writing at all, is the hope of being understood, if only by myself. I find my own existence more baffling than ever, and writing the diary is one way to stop myself going absolutely mad. Except I’m not even sure what madness means. Still, it wouldn’t do for me to feel normal. I can’t pull off ‘normal’ as a look.


Friday 18th December 2018. I’m reading a lot about Angus Wilson, partly in preparation for a discussion on the Backlisted podcast, but also because he relates to my ongoing interest in camp, in this case as a kind of literary style. But he was camp in his own persona too. He makes a cameo in Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth, where he’s described as ‘camp as a tent peg’. And McEwan should know: he was Wilson’s pupil at UEA.

Angus Wilson was known for dressing in linen suits, with flamboyant bow ties, colourful shirts, and a swept-back leonine mane of hair. He spoke in a rapid, verbose kind of nattering; intellectual, but with a hint of gossip, not unlike Ned Sherrin. Margaret Drabble’s biography notes how in his older, fleshier years Wilson joked about his close resemblance to the actress Margaret Rutherford.

From what I can tell, Wilson currently tends to be left out of discussions of post-war British literature. The degree course I did a couple of years ago preferred the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis (but not Martin), Philip Larkin, Colin McInnes, John Wyndham, Sam Selvon, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and John Fowles. I now can see how Drabble’s Ice Age, which depicts 1970s Britain through a Victorian realist style, owes a debt to Wilson. It’s also mentioned in The Clash song, London Calling.

Wilson’s books are currently only available via Faber Finds, the automated print-on-demand service. While better than nothing this does lack the sense of care one has with a proper reissue. It’s telling that the most recent proper edition is the New York Review of Books one for Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, from 2005. Sometimes it takes America to value Englishness.

The novels aside, Angus Wilson should be better known for at least four other things. First, there was his work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war – against Mussolini rather than Hitler. Despite his later work among the world of fiction, his choice of a book on Desert Island Discs was a Bletchley nod: ‘any volume on mathematical logic’.

Another achievement was his work in the late 1940s and early 50s as Deputy Superintendent at the British Museum Library, now the British Library. Wilson had to organise the replacement of thousands of books destroyed in the Blitz. The British Library now has a painting of him in the Humanities 1 Reading Room, right by the entrance.

Then there’s his co-founding, with Malcolm Bradbury, of creative writing as a British university subject, which happened at UEA around 1970. This is probably his greatest legacy, given the huge industry that creative writing is today. This particular fact was even included in the general knowledge round on an edition of Mastermind. 

Still, it’s the fourth achievement that really interests me: his campaigning for gay rights. In 1980 he became the first openly gay man to be given a knighthood, a mere thirteen years after the law was changed. That really can’t be underestimated. Even though he was at pains for Hemlock and After not to be called a gay book, or for himself to be called a gay author, he nevertheless went out of his way to help the cause. In 1985, during the height of AIDS paranoia, when the same government who had honoured him raided the Gay’s the Word bookshop, Wilson used his position to intervene. ‘It is intolerable’, he wrote, ‘that officials should have such wide-ranging powers of indiscriminate seizure of books. It is even more intolerable that those powers should be exercised’. The shop was acquitted.

If books do furnish a room, Angus Wilson’s books rather furnish second hand bookshops.  Today I’m browsing in Any Amount Of Books in Charing Cross Road, and have no problem finding some cheap Wilson paperbacks. The man at the till remarks on my choice: ‘Angus Wilson! I didn’t think anyone read him these days!’ He tells me that Wilson appears in a scene in ‘a recent novel’ which has a party at a gay bookshop. He can’t recall the name of the author, or the title of the book, but as the fictional shop is probably based on Gay’s The Word, he advises me to ask there.

So I walk to Gay’s the Word, twenty minutes away in Marchmont Street, where Uli and Jim confirm the book in question: it’s Philip Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz (2014). It is instances like these that show how bookshops can be better at providing information than Google, and better at providing a memorable shopping experience than Amazon.

The novel I’m talking about, Hemlock and After (1952), is mainly set in a fictional Hertfordshire village, Little Vernon. It’s probable that Wilson drew inspiration from Little Hadham, near Bishop’s Stortford, where he lived just after the war. The same village was later the home and inspiration for Fairport Convention, who immortalised the Angel Pub in their album Angel Delight.


Wednesday 19th December 2018. It’s become something of a cliché for successful writers to say they read ‘all the books’ in their school library when they were growing up. At which I always think: except any books on humility.


Thursday 20th December 2018. A rather silly article in the New Statesman, arguing that the role you were given in your primary school nativity play is connected to who you are as an adult. I indulge the idea, though, and recall how at primary school I was the only boy angel. Though I did insist.


Friday 21st December 2018. I must stop mistaking irritability for a cheap source of happiness.


Saturday 22nd December 2018. The great thing about Christmas jumpers is that they allow one to identify a gang of lads approaching with vital seconds of notice. I’ve found that there now seems to be divergence in the colour scheme. The jumpers with a blue background tend to be more tasteful and wry. It’s the red jumpers that mark out lads who are out to make trouble. At least, that’s what’s worn by a group of drunk men in St Pancras Marks & Spencers tonight, as they hijack some wheeled stacks of baskets and push each other around in them.


Sunday 23rd December 2018. Statistically, Christmas is responsible for an awful lot of depression. I myself run low on money today, hitting that dreaded ‘card declined’ moment in shops. I walk the streets in despair for some time. But what helps me snap out of it is the realisation that Christmas was, like many midwinter festivals, invented as a remedy against the despondency and fear caused by the season’s lack of light. Beneath the surface of the enforced jollity and the pressure to buy and to consume, it turns out that Christmas was your friend all along.

I also cheer myself up by noticing that there’s a mosaic of a Christmas pudding on the floor of a certain public building in central London, so I take a photo and run a quick seasonal quiz on Twitter. Alexandra Chiriac (@arthistorynomad) wins. The answer is Boris Anrep’s mosaics in the main entrance hall of the National Gallery. Specifically, it’s the east vestibule mosaic, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929). ‏Also in the mosaics are Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, and Greta Garbo. But unless you look down, you miss them.


To Hackney Picturehouse for Mary Poppins Returns. The audience applauds at the end, which doesn’t easily happen at the self-consciously trendy Picturehouse.


24th to 27th December 2018. I spend Christmas with Mum in Suffolk. Just the two of us. An entirely pleasant and happy time.


Saturday 29th December 2018. I watch an ‘alumni’ edition of University Challenge. There’s a question put to the Peterhouse, Cambridge team, which is led by the former Conservative leader, Michael Howard. ‘Name the author of these books: The Sadeian Woman, The Passion Of New Eve, and The Magic Toyshop.’ None of them know the answer. Then again, perhaps it would be more upsetting if Michael Howard was a fan of Angela Carter.


Monday 31st Dec 2018. I’m reading Sentencing Orlando, a new book of essays on the Woolf novel. One writer remarks that Woolf’s Orlando would have voted for Brexit. There’s no explanation as to why this might be the case, other than a vague indication of Orlando’s conservatism, on account of his/her aristocratic status. I’d have thought that given Orlando’s defiance of the boundaries of gender and mortality, for them to embrace geographical boundaries would then be out of character. Still, this is a parlour game for the times: which among the dead or the fictional would have voted for Brexit? And so it goes on.

I see in the New Year alone in my room in Dalston, half watching TV, half looking at Twitter, with pleasant drinks and food to hand. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Tuesday January 1st 2019. Resolution: to embrace my oddness. I used to, but in recent years I’ve tried to be more normal in case it led to being more liked. It rather backfired: I just met with more rejection. So here’s to Weirdo Visibility. But in a good way.


Thursday 3rd January 2018. In 1970 my father, Brian Edwards, was hired to illustrate the cover of the first UK edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. They sent him Vonnegut’s own manuscript to work with. The publishers didn’t use his design on the finished book, instead going for a straightforward title-only design:

Today I’m searching the web and find an auction of a rare proof copy, which has Dad’s design. It must be something of a collector’s item. I tell Mum and she finds one among Dad’s things in the house in Suffolk. This is the front cover:

The illustration carries on to the back of the dust jacket:

Dad’s name appears on the bottom of the back flap:


Friday 11th January 2019. I submit my third & final annual attempt to secure a maintenance grant for my PhD. Applying for funding makes me think of that line from Michael Frayn’s Clockwise: ‘It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope’.


Friday 18th January 2019. Editing my own work. Note to self: ‘Dear Dickon, you are only allowed one ‘accordingly’.


Sunday 20th January 2019. I watched the Fyre Festival documentary, or at least the one on Netflix. There’s another one out at the same time. In 2017, Fyre was a ‘luxury’ music festival on an island in the Bahamas, which quickly became a disaster. The documentary is an entertaining piece of storytelling, depicting the hubris of the Instagram generation, how young people with too much money can come a cropper of the need to be ‘where it’s at’. A sort of Bullingdon Club mentality, in fact, just like the opening scenes of Decline and Fall.Some good has come of this glossy schadenfreude: there’s crowdfunding sites to help the local caterers and builders who worked on the festival, only to be left out of pocket. While this is cheering, there’s still the uneasy sense of, as with Bullingdon, rich people getting away with it, or even profiting, because of who they are.


Wednesday 23rd January 2019. To Islington, and the offices of the publisher Unbound, to be the guest on the Backlisted podcast. The discussion takes place after office hours, on a table in a corner of the open-plan, modern building, close to the canal. They dim the lights and provide pink gin. Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, the regular hosts, are extremely good at what they do. They carve out their own territory on a spectrum between an amateur book group, with its connotations of rambling indulgence, and a Radio 4 book programme, which, while more professional, can evoke an unconvincing stiffness. Backlisted captures the appeal of old books for those who take their interest seriously but never without a big, kind heart. The Unbound office is also close to Noel Road, where Joe Orton lived and so graphically died. There’s a nice connection there for talking about the different ways a post-war English gay writer might align himself: Wilson the establishment man, Orton the outlaw.   


Saturday 26 January 2018. In Russell Square I walk past a lad sitting on a bench. He shouts at me.

‘Like your hair, mate.’

‘Thank you very much.’

‘I was joking.’

‘I’m afraid I have to accept your first answer.’

I feel I should add that this retort was a prepared one. I’ve had these sarcastic, two-part cat calls before.

It’s the desperation of the second part that intrigues: the catcaller is now anxious to inform you of their true intention. In the case of the Russell Square lad, if I’d just said, ‘Thank you very much’ after his initial remark, and immediately put in my headphones, it’s not a stretch to imagine him getting off the bench and racing after me. ‘OY! You need to know that I was joking!’

Why make a two-part catcall? Perhaps, contrary to the song, the second cut is the deepest.


Sunday 27th January 2019. To the Lexington for a charity gig by The Fallen Women, being the all-woman Fall karaoke band, with Fosca’s Charley Stone on guitar. The guest singers, who do one song each, include a bearded Stewart Lee, who does ‘Iceland’ (I think), and takes it extremely seriously. Another young woman, a DJ with afro hair whose name I can’t remember, does ‘Repetition’ and turns in a first-class post-punk performance.

Sharon Horgan, the comedy actress, also sings – I’m later told she’s something of a Fall expert. I chat to Beth and Bobby of Trembling Blue Stars, plus Sarah Bee.


Saturday 2nd February 2019. I listen to the podcast version of the BBC Radio 4 programme, A Good Read. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the choice of Scarlett Curtis, the Sunday Times’s pink-haired voice of young women. The Argonauts really is a book of these times, the talisman of a generation which thinks more fluidly about gender and sexuality, though Maggie Nelson herself is a little older. This issue may indeed end up as a fleeting fashion (I’m thinking of The Bisexual line: ‘Everyone under 25 these days calls themselves queer’) but I nevertheless find it cheering and exciting.

Something else on A Good Read that defines this age: one of the guests, the comedian Catherine Bohart, calls the radio recording a ‘podcast’, even though it’s been a BBC radio show for years. She is not corrected. Perhaps all audio recordings are now podcasts full stop, while live radio is ‘live podcasting’. It’s all content from the web. Except that the device that spawned the ‘pod’ part – the iPod – is nearly obsolete. The word is already a tribute to recent history.


Monday 4th February 2019. The Backlisted podcast was published (or uploaded) today. I listen, and squirm at the sound of my voice, gabbling and lisping in my strange little way. Still, I take comfort from the speaking career of Slavoj Zizek, who has a similar lateral lisp and air of tenseness, but who also has that strong Eastern European accent. Does that stop him from being booked to speak? Quite the reverse. He’s worked his shortcomings into a unique brand. All the same, while I can’t help the lisp, I need to put more effort into making my voice slower and more controlled next time. But this is vanity. The best result from the podcast appearance would be that people seek out the books of Angus Wilson.

I take comfort from Wilson too, who clearly had a level of camp hysteria to his personality, but which he managed to channel into productive writing and clear (if fast) speaking. That’s one reason why I chose Hemlock and After: it tries to explain why people are the way they are, with an emphasis on camp men.  


Announcement: On the 5th of February at 7pm I shall be appearing at the British Library in London, as part of the event Diaries: Lives and Times. Tickets are available online at:

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