The American Way Of Shame

Saturday 7th March 2015.

An article in the Guardian profiles Ed Miliband on the campaign trail. With his second-class train travel and his unexpected love of snooker, he finally comes across a real person, even likeable, rather than as a collection of learned PR tactics. Though that too is a PR tactic. It’s like Hollywood giving Debbie Reynolds the image of the girl next door. As the old joke goes, the secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Meanwhile the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, has reached a higher plateau of public visibility. A professional look-a-likes company has added a Natalie B impersonator to its books. Success of a kind.

* * *

Monday 9th March 2015.

In the evening: to Birkbeck’s Keynes Library for an event about postgraduate courses.

The difference between BAs and MAs is reflected in the racks of leaflets available in the Gordon Square lobby. The BA leaflets are A4 and bright pink, suggesting the courses are cute, childlike, even huggy. The leaflets for the MA courses, meanwhile, are A5 and battleship grey. It implies they’re all about increased concentration, seriousness, no waste, no mucking about.

What throws me for six is that tonight I find out that applications for MA bursaries, as in grants to fund a Master’s this autumn, have to be in by the end of April. Which means applying for the course itself earlier than that.

So much of my week is spent worrying about MAs, which I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do until the summer. The funding alone seems to be a complete minefield: it’s not helped by ‘part-fee waiver’ bursaries, which don’t actually tell you the sum you are applying for. As with so much of modern life now, getting paid at all is meant to be a delightful surprise.

Many bursaries seem to be outrageously narrow in their requirements: ‘Applicable only for students from Tanzania, with a first class degree, who are looking to do an MA in Postal Museum Management. In Hull. Must love dogs.’

* * *

Tuesday 10th March 2015.

Still worrying about what to do with myself after the degree. I ask some friends. Some say it’s better to go straight into an MA, others recommend taking a year off. Some think I should get a job alongside it, to cover the inevitable shortfall in funding. Though no one has said what job.

Still, they pretty much all agree that academia is something I should pursue in the long run. It is, after all, the one thing in my recent life where I’ve actually been a success (if an unpaid one).

The question now is: which MA course, which institution, and when? This autumn, or defer to the year after that? And should I stay in London or look further afield?

My answer today is, pathetically, I don’t know. My mind is too full of the dissertation and the remaining BA essays to think about anything else. I’ve spent a few cursory hours looking courses up, but nothing yet takes my interest.

However, I have at least applied to do a Birkbeck MA that does leap out at me: Contemporary Literature and Culture. Whatever happens, it’ll be good to have that set up as an option for this autumn. I don’t have to formally commit until then.

* * *

Tonight I start to fill out the huge online MA application form. It’s one of those with Mandatory Asterisks of Doom, where the page won’t let you proceed until you enter something in a box. This one wants me to upload my GCSE certificates, as they are still my most recent formal qualifications. The BA’s not done yet, and I never took A-levels.

I never feel that a set of dusty acronyms acquired decades ago have any bearing on a much-changed person today. I’m not even the same person I was at the beginning of this sentence, frankly.  And that’s not flimsiness, that’s evolution. No, really.

* * *

Wednesday 11th March 2015.

Reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  A fascinating and copiously-researched work, which asks if social media has brought about an atavistic return to public executions, if figurative ones. Certainly, there’s been an almost daily occurrence of stories in the UK news, where someone has had to apologise for something they said on the internet. But many of the people in this book aren’t politicians or public figures, merely members of the public who were crucified online after posting ill-advised tweets.

I think it’s significant that the majority of Mr R’s subjects are American. Americans do shame so much bigger and better than the British. The way the people in the book react when speaking to Mr R is often acutely emotional and over-the-top: a touch of the Hollywoods. One talks about his shame being ‘radioactive’ – that it might be catching. He is called ‘tainted’ by other Americans.

The British, meanwhile, are far more circumspect with their shame. They secretly think it’s shameful to be British at all.

I wonder if the book’s long list of acknowledgments is Jon R’s safeguard against not falling into the trap of two of his subjects: journalists caught fabricating the truth in their work. I’m reminded of the case of Johann Hari, the crusading Independent journalist who was found to have made up quotes, and was soon shamed out of his job, albeit in a quieter, British way.

But Jon Ronson’s style is very different to Hari’s: he questions his own reactions at every stage, and keeps the tone (mostly) compassionate, rather than judgemental. If anything is being shamed in his book, it’s not people, but the internet.


* * *

Thursday 12th March 2015.

Tea at the Wolseley with Lawrence Gullo and Fyodor Pavlov, visiting from NYC. Also present: the cabaret artiste Vicky Butterfly and my rock musician neighbour, David R-P. Fyodor is Russian, and gives David and myself a huge bag of Russian sweets. Some are chocolates, some are wafers, some are mini versions of Penguin biscuits, and some are boiled sweets.

The sweet wrappers have Cyrillic script alongside different baffling images: swans, masquerade masks, scary doll-like children in headscarves, and lobsters.

Haven’t been to the ornate Wolseley in years. Delighted to see that their straightforward Cream Tea is still affordable, at £10.75 for a plate of scones, jam and cream, and a pot of tea, with refills. Cheap classiness – very me.

The discussion turns to aging. Learned today: Crispin Gray, the guitarist of the early 90s band Daisy Chainsaw, and currently in The Dogbones, is a descendant of the Victorian poet John Gray. As in the rumoured inspiration for Wilde’s Dorian. Fittingly, Crispin doesn’t seem to have aged since 1991.

* * *

Friday 13th March 2015.

I fear I am developing a brioche habit.

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In Newburgh, NY

Am staying with Lawrence Gullo and his partner Fyodor at their home in Newburgh, upstate New York. Occasion: their wedding this Saturday Aug 22nd. They’re actually getting legally married in the state of Vermont next month, but this is the ceremony and reception for friends.

Arrive at Newark airport Thursday evening, having travelled with fellow wedding guest David Ryder-Prangley. Spend most of the journey working on a poem to read out at the reception.

Am reminded that poetry is by far the easiest medium to do badly. I do six drafts longhand, then run it by the happy couple on Saturday morning for approval, just in case they’d rather I plumped for the Shakespeare or Whitman I’d brought by way of back-up (Sonnet 116, and ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’). My own effort is, after all, a little personal and political, linking respect for transgenderism with Ovid’s myth of Iphis.

A Newburgh water tower, as seen on Friday when out with Lawrence and Fyodor shopping for the wedding:


The weather is absolutely sweltering, even plantation-like. Crickets outside my window sound like serenading eletric razors; the sheer volume of the creatures calls for earplugs at night. It’s not a constant, even sound, either: some crickets get nearer and louder from time to time, with all varieties of whirring and buzzing imaginable.

Tepid rain showers punctuate the days. Lawrence’s house is full of electric fans on full-pelt. Drinking water constantly is par for the course. When I get out of Lawrence’s car to walk to a local diner for breakfast – the car being a  hybrid-fuel Prius with perfect air-conditioning, my glasses steam up.


Inside the diner (more perfect fridge-like air conditioning), I have pancakes with syrup, and am attended by a waitress who walks among the tables with a top-up jug asking, ‘Coffee, hon?’ Just like in the movies. The diner has an amazing mural:


More guests arrive at the house for Friday evening, when there’s something of an alternative batchelor party (for both grooms). Various turns include burlesque – an Aussie lady morris dancer who disrobes levels of vintage costume made by her seamstress girlfriend  – and a beautiful be-wigged Brooklyn drag queen. One turn is a hilarious lecture on How To Dance Goth.

On Saturday morning, the marriage ceremony takes place in the nearby park. The grooms declare their vows:



Then they join their hands and present them for binding by the guests. Each guest adds a ribbon to the union:




And I get to wear a garland of frangipani. I smell wonderful, frankly (photo taken by Eileen, Lawrence’s mother):


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Bohemian Miners At The Coalface of News

Saturday – afternoon tea at the Wallace Collection with the Teaists. Service is criminally slow – over an hour and a half till we see our food. ‘Trouble in the kitchen’ apparently. For mere cakes, scones and sandwiches. But they do offer us free wine by way of compensation, and let us waive the tip.

Seventeen at table – a record turn out. Those present include Jamie from the Irrepressibles, Jake, Suzi L, Helen McCookerybook (singer and Monochrome Set associate – my first meeting with her, I think), Sebastian G, Tobias, John Joseph Bibby, David Ryder-P, and Lucinda & William. We are quite a vision to the eldery Ladies Who Tearoom around us, and I’m not sure if they side with the appalled tearoom customers in that Withnail & I ‘finest wines known to humanity’ scene, or if they enjoy us. Either way, we get more than a few stares.

The occasion is Lawrence Gullo’s joint birthday and deportation back to the US, as his work visa has expired, and the retail job he has is not deemed Highly Skilled enough to allow him to stay. A sad case of affairs, and not the first ‘deportation party’ for a much-loved American friend that I’ve been to, either.

There really should be a green card system that recognises Proper Friends in number, in the same way as the points system currently used by the Home Office for determining what is a ‘skilled’ enough job. Prove you have enough UK friends living nearby, those who might as well be family members, who are willing to commit the level of support you’d expect from a spouse (seeing them regularly, rushing to hospital beds,  being by their side when needed etc) and the cumulative ‘Attachment Points’ would count towards an extended stay.

The friends in question would have to pledge their Proper Friendship under oath, and sign a binding contract subject to checks by the Ministry Of Friendship. But that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Goodness knows there’s enough of my friends whose degree of affection I’m never quite sure of. Would they stretch to donating a kidney, or are they happy to keep it at the ‘occasional friendly nod across a crowded bar’ level? It’d be handy to get these things in writing.

It would also help me when someone says ‘Hello Dickon’, and I can’t quite place who they are, or can’t quite remember their name. Which has happened at least once at the New Job.

So: I’ve just completed my first week of Proper Work, taking my place amongst the Bohemian Miners At The Coalface Of News.

How has it been? Surreal.

‘Surreal?’ says Ms D. ‘Hah! Normal work for you is surreal?’

‘REAL for me is surreal…’

It’s been tough, in fact. A shock to the system. A sobering, if salutary experience. I have to brave a packed, surly tube to Tower Hill for 0930. I sit at a computer screen. I scroll past scanned-in pages from national and local newspapers. I use the computer mouse to carefully slice up and duplicate the articles, deciding which ones should be sent to which news-hungry clients. Computers can’t yet fathom the subtleties of context, hence the need for human readers and editors. I repeat until 1345. I take 1 hour lunch. Then I carry on until 1730. With a 15 min coffee break here and there.

It really is pure work, so far. No phone use, no internet use. Not much conversation, either, as the one other nightshift trainee is as keen as me to get as much done as possible, and neither of us know how much counts as Enough.

We’re on the main office floor: umpteen long tables of chairs at screens. And as these two weeks of training are 9 – 5 and Mon – Fri, we’re sharing the room – and part of our table – with the daytime staff. They aren’t unfriendly but there’s a definite sense of separation, putting us in our place as not only mere trainees, but trainees for a completely different staff. So they talk to each other in the usual office way (the economy in crisis, Madonna’s divorce, did you see X TV programme last night, etc), but never including us. Which is fair enough, but it does make the week feel even more surreal than it already is for me.

So I accept my invisibility, and am just getting used to this, while immersing myself in the work, when out of nowhere someone comes over and says ‘Well well well, Dickon Edwards… What brings you here, prithee? How the mighty have risen…’

Or words to that effect. Not quite ‘how the mighty have risen’. That’s me.

This sort of thing has happened about four or five times. Jarring, sporadic bouts of non-invisibility in an otherwise undivided week of feeling like a ghost. Again, the overall word just has to be: surreal.


Thursday was the worse. Thursday I came close to tears. The work, the cold-shower shock of it, the sudden visitations from Friends Of Friends. But Friday was, in fact, fine. A normal Friday feeling, I suppose. And now it’s the weekend and it FEELS like a weekend. Bliss. Freedom. A connection with the working world, albeit a tentative one.

I suppose what I’m experiencing is a kind of jet-lag from crossing one world into another, with no halfway house.


The other trainee seems nice enough. Although he doesn’t know me, he does know the boyfriend of someone I know.

And at Lawrence’s afternoon tea party today, one of the seventeen turns out to be on the same night shift as me.

Anyone who says ‘small world’ at the Bohemian News Mine is immediately directed to the naughty step.


The work must be having an effect on my Ideas production, though. In addition to the Proper Friends contract system for saving much-loved Americans from deportation.

I think it’s about time one should be able to donate Testosterone.

I’m thinking of my dear female-to-male transsexual friends. They want to be physically more manly, and I hate shaving. And I don’t just shave my face. If in the future I ever want a beard, or a hairy chest, I shall just go out and buy one, frankly.

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