Diamonds and Beaus

Friday 13th May 2016. Early afternoon: I’m recognised in Jermyn Street by a gentleman who says he enjoys this diary. In fact, he crosses the street to tell me this, narrowly avoiding being run down. Surely no writer can ask for higher praise than this: a reader risking their own life to pass on a good review. Perhaps it should go on the back of a book. ‘I enjoyed Dickon Edwards so much, I was nearly hospitalised’.

He adds that he was disappointed I didn’t say more about the death of Prince, given what I’d said about Bowie a few months earlier. This is a perfectly good point.

I think one reason might be that, when I was growing up, I’d always regarded Prince as one of my brother Tom’s favourites; his territory more than mine. For some reason we divided up singers and bands between us, as if they were soft toy animals. I got to cuddle New Order, the Pixies and the Smiths, Tom had the Cult, the Beastie Boys, and Prince.

But if one loves good pop songs, and believes, as I do, that pop music is at its best when used as a platform for individuality, eccentricity, and indeed dandyism, obviously one has to admire Prince.

It’s all the more apt that this request took place on Jermyn Street. The street is something of a dandy Mecca, being home to some of London’s most stylish menswear shops, to the church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Sebastian Horsley had his funeral in a red squinned coffin, and to a statue to that most influential of London dandies, Beau Brummel. It is a statue close enough to the ground to be hugged, an act which dandyish American friends of mine make a point of doing whenever they visit.

A further coincidence is that I was on my way to the London Library, a block away in St James’s Square. After parting company with the reader, I remember that I’d once found a book on dandyism in the library, one which directly compared Prince with Beau Brummell. So today I go straight into the stacks and retrieve the book in question.

The book is called Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). As part of a chapter on the legacy of dandyism, Garelick reprints a 1995 Esquire cover, on which Prince pulls a definite dandyish pose. It’s from his Artist Formerly Known As phase, just after his hit, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. His hair at this point is short, dark, combed and straightened, with a touch of the silkily feminine (even a Hugh Grant-ish schoolboy floppiness). He has a thin pencil beard that seems an extension of his cheekbones, and wears a slim pinstripe suit, buttoned down, over a white shirt with big cuffs. He sports a dark tie (collar button undone), fingers covered in rings, and leans against a silver cane.

According to Garelick, Prince’s image at this point follows in the classic nineteenth-century dandy traits. Prince ‘borrows unmistakably from the likes of Beau Brummell, Baudelaire and Jean Lorrain’. The main criteria are his aloofness, his air of contempt for convention, and his highly stylized persona. On top of that, his 1990s adoption of an unpronounceable symbol allies him with Barbey d’Aurevilly’s idea of the dandy life: one of pure surface and symbol, an influence beyond language: the dandy is ‘that which can hardly be recounted’. Certainly, changing one’s name to an actual symbol takes that aspect of dandyism to the limit. Though I’d say Prince had already put his stamp on language by that point, given his love of turning words into single letters or numbers, as in ‘I Would Die 4 U’.

The gendered aspects of Prince’s dandyism were equally fascinating. Granted, it may not have been original for a male, black, American performer to play with femininity in the rock and pop field; one thinks of Little Richard and Rick James. But Prince used his influences in order to do as Bowie did: make something new. He especially intensified the androgynous aspects of his imagery, imbuing them with that most deviant of colours – purple.

I think of that campest of pre-war dandy writers, Ronald Firbank, and his love of writing with purple ink. I also think of Brigid Brophy taking this detail of Firbank’s so much to heart, she apparently switched to using purple ink for the longhand manuscript of Prancing Novelist, her 1973 study of Firbank. The Brophy book is 600 pages long. That’s a lot of purple.

Through these deviant codes, Prince’s dandyism became an outrageous queering of heterosexuality – a machismo-troubling version of Camp Rock which he shared with such figures as Marc Bolan, Tiny Tim and Russell Brand (who isn’t even a musician, but he hasn’t let that stop him).

Garelick’s book also compares Prince’s use of female dancers and co-singers with names as Vanity, Apollonia, and Mayte, as echoing 1890s Decadent ‘tableaux’, such as ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings of androgynous, erotic, and nearly twin creatures’. Though in Prince’s case, says Garelick, the women were not so much twins as shadows in his wake, a ‘merging of the dandy and the danseuse‘.

Certainly, any woman appearing with Prince had to become remade in his image. I never saw Prince in concert, but I was interested enough to catch his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, when it hit British cinemas. For the song ‘U Got The Look’, the female role was filled by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’d already had a successful career in her own right. For ‘U Got The Look’, though, she became well and truly Prince-i-fied. From her singing to her clothes to her poses, she was not so much a guest vocalist as just another interchangeable cog in the man’s machine. When in Purple Rome, you do as the Purple Roman does.

More recently, I thought of Prince when I heard the song ‘Quicksand’ by La Roux, aka Elly Jackson, a young singer who might herself be described as a dandy (the National Portrait Gallery’s shop currently has her on a postcard, wearing a very Bowie-esque mustard yellow suit). Musically, ‘Quicksand’ is clearly influenced by ‘When Doves Cry’, from the chords to the clipped 80s synths. But Ms Jackson’s singing is a very Prince-like style too: shifting across the genders from high feminine falsetto to low, growing boyish swagger. For me, that’s when art is at its best: when there’s a breaking out of prescribed roles, and the same trappings of said roles are re-used on the artist’s own terms, to communicate their individualism. And that’s also a definition of dandyism, in my book.


Evening: to the ICA to see Mustang, a Turkish film, set in the present day, about five teenage orphan sisters living in what seems like an idyllic picturesque setting: a hillside village near the Black Sea coast. Their mildly rebellious behaviour during the school holidays, however, sees them dramatically punished by their guardians – first with imprisonment in their own home, complete with bars on the windows, and then into forced marriage to equally reluctant young men. The film’s sensualised, slightly surreal atmosphere accentuates the idea of a close-knit group of girls disappearing into a world of their own, thus placing the film in the same tradition as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides, and last year’s The Falling.

With the added dimension of the conservative Turkish setting, though, Mustang has more complex questions about the role of arranged marriage in a changing world. The girls’ captor, their grandmother, is no fairy tale tyrant; she merely believes that, because she herself was married off straight after puberty, that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for one of the sisters, her marriage to the boy she was already seeing is shown as a good thing, if a hasty one. For the others, though, freedom comes in the form of escape to the big city – Istanbul – and to the parent they really want: a beloved schoolteacher. The real asset of the film, though, is the utterly naturalistic and convincing performances, particularly by the youngest sister.

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The process of writing a non-fiction book is fascinating. Mr Agent now wants to know if I’m going to write ‘Forever England’ as a straight narrative or as a more guide book shaped affair.

Which is better? 14 chapters of 5000 words (narrative style) or 40 chapters of 2000 words (guidebook style)? I have to decide this now, really.

My gut reaction is go with 14 long chapters with a decent index, as once I start to write about something, I like to really explore and get settled in. But maybe shorter chapters would be more readable, more dip-into-able, and perhaps make the book more commercial, in these days of compact attention spans. Ultimately, I want as many readers as possible. Which path to take?


Saturday last – a trip to Brighton for the wedding party of Simon Price and Jenna Allsopp. Staying with Rhoda B at a hotel near the station.

Venue is the basement of the Al Duomo Italian restaurant, round the side of the Pavilion Buildings. Inside, each table has its own designated 7-inch pop single floating above it, anchored to a helium balloon. I look inside each sleeve, and it really is the actual records. All impeccable choices, given the bride and groom DJ at their own long-running club in Camden, Stay Beautiful. There’s The Specials – Ghost Town. Siouxie and the Banshees- Spellbound. Manic Street Preachers – Love’s Sweet Exile (underrated in my book). The single which happens to be above the table I’ve randomly installed myself at turns out to be David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes. Perfect.

I drink too much and enjoy myself too much, with the result that I spend the day after with a twitching right thumb. I’d collapsed into bed drunk and slept on a nerve or muscle in the wrong way. It’s a new degree of hangover for me- actual palsy.

At the party I boozily flirt with younger people yet bemoan (and bore them with) the tragic way one’s romantic taste doesn’t change as one gets older.

There’s no solution to this, really. There are those of my age who think nothing of visiting their paramours in student halls of residence, happy to attend birthday parties full of 20-year-olds when they’re nearly 40.  I enjoy the company of the young, but if I’m the only person at a party who’s over 22, part of me thinks, ‘This Looks Unseemly, Frankly’.

And then again… Another part thinks, ‘Well, I’m not getting any other offers, damn it. And they can’t be after me for money.’

It can be  about casting oneself in a role, before you’re cast by someone else. How does this look? It’s all very well saying ‘who cares what others think’, but if you take an interest in your external appearance per se, you can’t help considering the outside view when it comes to companions, too. Here is a man, you are saying, with someone far too young for them.

There are those who feel a younger lover keeps them young, while others think an age difference makes them feel twice as old. ‘Who’s this then? Kasa-been?’ ‘Kasabian, Grandad.’ ‘Ah, heard it all before. It reminds me of The Wedding Present circa 1987…’ ‘Who?’

I realise Kasabian don’t sound anything like the Wedding Present. Probably. I could find out. But the fogey-ish image suits me, and takes less effort, so why bother?

In fact, if I DO investigate new pop music, it arguably makes me look sadder.  I absolutely adore La Roux, a tomboyish Brixton girl singer sporting heavy 1980s make-up and a quiff (Tilda Swinton meets Molly Ringwald, as someone put it). She looks like she has no friends – except the posters on her wall. I’m sure she DOES have friends offstage, but the image is clear: defiant and refreshingly aloof.

Her records go from sounding a bit like Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ (‘Quicksand’) to budget synthpop recalling Romo and Post-Romo bands like Hollywood, Riviera, Client, or Baxendale (‘Bulletproof’).

But if I were to go to a La Roux show, given I’m 37 and she’s about 12, I’d just look deeply, deeply sad. Well, unless I hang onto the bar at the back for dear life. My taste is the same, it’s only my body that’s changed. My body isn’t me – sometimes.

In fact, I’ve just written an Angela Carter-ish fairy tale about this, ‘Gepetto’ (sic), which should appear in a fanzine for the comic Phonogram. It’s an attempt to map the story of Geppetto & Pinocchio onto a relationship between an older man (who’s keen to pull the strings), and a younger female-to-male transsexual who dreams of becoming a Real Boy. Or at least, that’s where it starts: I quickly became bored with the Pinocchio-transman idea (‘yeah, that old chestnut!’), and went onto, well, everything I had to tell the world full stop. There’s musings on rebelling against the body (the wrong age versus the wrong gender), and Phonogram-esque references to a song by the 90s band Belly.

I wrote the story just before leaving for Gibraltar, in three handwritten drafts (fountain pen, A4 lined), followed by a fourth on the computer. Heaven knows what others will make of it, but I’m pleased I did it. Next step: more.

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