Resting Sad Face

Tuesday 25 July 2023. Living far from a cinema, the availability of so many films on digital TV comes into its own. Tonight I watch with Mum All That Jazz, from 1979, the Bob Fosse film that’s essentially a self-portrait. The real footage of open-heart surgery makes me cover my eyes, and I feel slightly angry that Fosse thought it necessary to include at all. The main character’s constant smoking is also shocking for a professional choreographer, all the more so today. Do dancers smoke much now? Perhaps it’s like nurses, the type of work making no difference to the addiction.

The film’s fantasy dance scenes around a hospital bed precede The Singing Detective, and I wonder if that’s where Dennis Potter got the idea. Mum thinks the final sequence goes on too long. ‘I’m afraid I was wanting him to hurry up and die’.


Friday 28 July 2023. A kind and unsolicited email from Alan Hollinghurst, who sought out my Firbank thesis online to read. He says he read it ‘with enormous admiration’, and admires my ‘amazingly extensive and detailed research’, with ‘so many new details and insights’. My prose style is also ‘marvellously free of rebarbative theoretical jargon’. Given that I regard him as the greatest living English novelist, this is encouragement indeed.

As a result he’s sought out Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and the works of Richard Paul Nugent. If the next Hollinghurst novel has references to those writers, I suppose it may be my fault.


Saturday 3 August 2023. Mum has had a fall while away in Birmingham. She is now in hospital with a fractured thigh bone, recovering from surgery. Her life will now be shared with a walking frame or crutches for at least six weeks, probably more. It’s just as well I’m about to fetch things, particularly from upstairs. The important detail is that this happened while she was line dancing at a quilting festival. The silver lining of accident is anecdote.


Monday 7 August 2023. An appointment at Ipswich Job Centre. I am instructed to increase my earnings as a self-employed writer, or they may force me to look for other work to justify my claiming benefits to avoid starvation. Not sure what best to do. I was rather hoping that reaching this age would have garnered me some sort of following by now. One only needs about 1500 fans to each pay £20 a year for a book or a gig or some other sort of regular content, and that’s a living. But I’ve still yet to achieve that. Perhaps I’m just too niche. Which is putting it kindly.


Wednesday 9 August 2023. I’ve changed the title of the Substack newsletter from ‘Letter from a Dyspraxic Dandy’ to ‘Svelte Lectures’. Much better. And they are lectures, really. Proper research, with rare findings, useful scholarship, and (I hope) lasting insights. I intend to compile them into a book once I’ve clocked up enough of them.


Thursday 10 August 2023. I’m listening to a calming BBC music mix by a woman who advocates ‘slow living’. I wonder if she manages to make a living from being slow. The fable of the tortoise and the hare is lost on many employers. They’ll go for a shoddy job done quickly over a worker who is slow but painstaking any time. I am of course talking about myself.

My mother has pointed out that in the 1970s Shirley ‘Superwoman’ Conran did all her admin on a Monday. I suppose one could try that with emails now and see what happens.


Saturday 12 August 2023. To Ipswich to see the film Oppenheimer at Cineworld Ipswich’s IMAX screen. The last bus home to the village is 5.40pm. In the English countryside there is no life after tea-time. Thank goodness for matinee screenings.

Despite its three hour duration, Oppenheimer breezes along. The nuclear test scene aside, it is essentially handsome men in shirts and ties talking quickly in rooms. And that’s more than enough: one thinks of Twelve Angry Men. On its own terms, it’s a better film than Barbie, if only because it knows how to end.

But comparing the two is silly anyway: both films are playing to expectations on some level. The way forward now is for Greta Gerwig to only be allowed to make films about troubled men in suits, while Christopher Nolan should only be allowed to make spangly dance routines with all-female casts.


Sunday 13 August 2023. I’m looking at adverts for rented rooms in St Leonards-on-Sea. Today I find one on the Spare Room website which has the following description:

This is new room. There is everything has been. There is included everything. There is all of nice guy. Make sure I need a.

Eat your heart out, Gertrude Stein.


Tuesday 15 August 2023. Sitting in a Hadleigh cafe, a woman comes over to ask me if I’m all right. I’m fine, the lack of income aside. But I’ve had people coming up and asking me this all my life. I can’t help having a Resting Sad Face.


Tuesday 22 August 2023. Today’s dial-a-ride bus to Hadleigh is shared with an older man from Kersey, Paul Dufficey, who turns out to have worked with Ken Russell. He was involved in Tommy and Savage Messiah. In the latter case, he also worked with Derek Jarman.

Kersey is an idyllic place for an artist of any age. As we reach the top of the hill the driver actually stops the bus so we can admire the view, unchanged since it was painted by John Nash in the last century.


Friday 25 August 2023. A kind fellow Birkbeck alumnus books me to give a one-off lecture to American students on the Sally Potter film Orlando, along with the Woolf novel. I know both inside out so it’s perfect work for me. By way of homework I watch Sally Potter’s more recent film The Party, which couldn’t be more different: a kind of twisted Alan Ayckbourn farce set in a house in contemporary London. It has Cillian Murphy, making it the second film in two weeks that I’ve seen him in black and white. 

[Update, a week later] The lecture job falls through. Pity. It would have been £150.  I’d started writing it too.


Saturday 2 September 2023. My Associate Research Fellowship at Birkbeck has expired. I’m now just a struggling self-employed writer with a PhD in English and Humanities. But at least I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do.


Sunday 3 September 2023. Not sure what best to do about turning 52. Except to finally embrace jazz. Not sure if I’ll quite become one of those people who can bang on about Pat Metheny till sunrise. But there’s still time.

I usually like to spend my birthday taking a day trip somewhere. But it’s Sunday in Suffolk, so there’s no buses, plus there’s a train strike. Happily, culture has come to the village this weekend courtesy of the BNatural music festival. Established in 2010, it has now become a miniature Latitude, complete with colourful branded beakers. First class sound. Three pop-up music venues, including a stage in the market square, on which the superb indie band Collars played yesterday. There’s a bar, a tea and cake stall, and several food vans. And slightly too many people: the organisers deliberately restrict publicity to prevent overcrowding.


Wednesday 6 September 2023. Signs of the post-Covid world. Adverts for rented rooms now often stipulate ‘no homeworkers’. They always say ‘lovely sunny room’, yet they don’t want anyone to spend any daylight hours in it.


Thursday 7 September 2023. I watch the Tour of Britain cycle race on television, then open the front door and watch it in person as it goes through the village. Quite a feat by the local police to clear the various roads of parked cars, not least in Hadleigh High Street. Psychology plays a part: no one likes to be the one motorist who won’t move their car.  


Sunday 17 September 2023. To Ipswich Hospital, where I was born, for a hernia repair operation. The ward is called Raedwald, after the Anglo-Saxon king who is thought to be the one buried at Sutton Hoo. The ward is accordingly decorated with glossy panels of Sutton Hoo imagery. Tea, toast, and jam in bed once I come round from the anesthetic. Heaven. And now, eight weeks of no heavy lifting. Not that I ever do very much. I even balk at hardback books.


Wednesday 27 September 2023. A day in London. Within seconds of stepping into the British Library I hear someone calling out ‘Dickon!’. My heart lifts at returning to the city.

I see the new David Hockney installation at The Lightroom, one of the buildings in the spotless new development north of King’s Cross.

The installation is one huge room, on the walls of which is projected a looped film of Hockney’s work lasting 50 minutes or so. All four walls are covered in this immersive projection, which at times spills onto the floor as well. The man himself narrates over music.

For all its high-tech wizardry, the installation is in the tradition of Victorian dioramas, when large and dramatic paintings like those of John Martin were shown in dark auditoriums, and changing lamp patterns would pick out different parts of the art.

Children run about in the room, and it’s quite a family friendly way of turning art into spectacle. Except, perhaps for the occasional nude bums in Hockney’s work, and his comments like: ‘Spring, when nature has an erection’. The presentation ends with a huge painted slogan, ‘LOVE LIFE’. Which one can’t argue with. Particularly when the entrance fee is only £5 for those on Universal Credit.


Tuesday 3 October 2023. To Woodbridge, where I’ve never been before. The Tide Mill Museum has sublime views of the Deben river, with the boats and trees in the distance. All very peaceful and idyllic, though I don’t feel wealthy enough to linger in the town too long.  


Saturday 7 October 2023. The film director Terence Davies dies. In 1988 my father was so moved by Distant Voices Still Lives that he wrote a fan letter to Davies. TD replied by phoning Dad to thank him. They then talked at length about working class childhoods in Britain during the 40s and 50s.


Sunday 8 October 2023. I’ve applied for a job with the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. Freelance assistant and researcher, part-time, temporary (7 months). Just the sort of thing I’m keen to do: Isherwood is in my PhD thesis. The job ad was pointed out to me by two friends, separately, who know me but not each other. So that’s a good indication that the job might suit me.

In my eager researcher way, I’ve looked up the Suffolk connection with Isherwood. His mother Kathleen grew up in Bury St Edmunds. She spent a lot of time at Nether Hall, the mansion in Pakenham, then owned by her wealthy uncle Walter Greene, of Greene King brewery fame. In 1903 she married Isherwood’s father, Frank, in the nearby St Peter’s Church, at Thurston, one of those enviable villages which has a railway station.


Monday 16 October 2023. Am approached for another job: compiling the index to an academic book, which I’ve done before. I say yes. A few days later the client, who I don’t know, then decides they’d rather go with someone with more experience. What with the Orlando lecture falling through, and my Substack earnings dropping to a trickle, I’m now hoping that the Isherwood job will prove to be a case of third time lucky. 


Saturday 21 October 2023. Floods in Suffolk. I plug a leak in the loft with rubber duct tape, but otherwise we are okay. Framlingham and Debenham to the east are hit hard. Homes wrecked, pubs and post offices damaged, cars under water, insurance apparently not applicable. Still, Framlingham is also the home of Ed Sheeran, so I wonder if he can help.


Sunday 22 October 2023. I’m still looking at studio flats in St-Leonard’s-On-Sea, but the situation for renters remains grim. This time I am not even offered a viewing for a flat that went on the market two days ago: they’re booked solid. Just as well my current landlady isn’t going to throw me out of her house until I have somewhere to go to. 

What I definitely don’t want is a basement or ground floor flat. I’d be paranoid about the flood risk (and as I publish this Hastings, which is next to St Leonard’s, is suffering a new bout of flooding).


Tuesday 24 October 2023. I have time to kill in Stowmarket, so I go to the public library, which is near the town’s pretty church. Run by the local council and open from 8.30 in the morning, this library is not just a place of free books but an all-round social support hub.

Here, librarians are the quiet saints of community. Gone are any concerns about silence: there is a chatty knitting group at a table in one corner, and some sort of pensioners’ group at another. Children run about (it’s half term), people make phone calls or do jigsaws, and the whole ambience is cheery, cosy and safe. There’s even a coffee machine, though one important aspect stops this place resembling a coffee shop: no piped music. Just the gentle melody of chatter.

Some are here just to take advantage of the heating. This has long been one of the attractions of libraries, but today there is a designated phrase for such places: ‘warm banks’.

There are free internet terminals for those who don’t have computers at home, which is still a lot of people. That said, there’s room for improvement: the council’s own website is not user-friendly enough. I know this because the old man at the computer next to me is sighing a lot as he taps slowly at the keyboard, one finger at a time. He turns to me by way of explanation:

‘They make these forms so complicated. I’m just trying to order a bin.’


Saturday 28 October 2023. After an interview via Zoom, I am offered the job with the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. It will mean working from home with the occasional trip to London, which suits me fine.

On reflection, I think I was successful because I made it to the interview stage, where I feel more at ease. Many people are uneasy about crowbarring their whole lovely complexity into the inflexible templates of cover letters and CVs. Give us an interview, though, and we come alive.  

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Propaganda For Compassion

Saturday 13th September 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Pride. This evening screening is nearly sold out; such is the film’s reputation. It’s been sold as the must-see British film of the moment, and promises something to please everyone. It’s very funny and moving, and that’s just Dominic West’s perm.

Despite the theme of gay activism, the film is very much aimed at the mainstream. I think of Quentin Crisp in the 1970s, grateful that The Naked Civil Servant was a TV film, because a big screen version would, he said, have only been seen by gay men, ‘plus liberals wishing to be seen going into and coming out of the cinema’. Times have changed, and gay people are now more regarded – at least in Britain – as people who happen to be gay, and are finally allowed to have other aspects to their lives as well. So it’s fairer to regard Pride as part of the same genre as Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty and especially Made In Dagenham: gritty tales of British social struggles sweetened with broad laughs and big emotional moments. Pride retells a number of true events from 1984, when a group of gay activists from London got involved in supporting the striking miners in Wales.

The requisite 1980s clothes, hair and pop music are all in place: lots of quiffs, little hats, and blue jeans with turn-ups at the bottom. In fact, looking at young people in London today, that particular trouser statement is starting to, well, turn up again. It’s also heartening to see the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury having a key role in the film – I only hope that people who enjoy Pride realise that the shop is still going strong today.

Inevitably some historical facts are played with: entirely fictional characters interact with those based on real people, while my pedantic side winces at the use of the AIDS ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ TV adverts for a scene set in 1984. They didn’t appear till two years later. But when the big emotional moments come, and the music swells on cue, the sense of earning the right to such manipulation is overwhelming. It’s hard to disagree with propaganda, if all that’s being preached is the need for basic compassion.

And there’s nothing like the sound of a packed audience laughing together at funny lines in a film. As the credits go up, this audience applauds.

* * *

Monday 15th September 2014. Advice for writers from Kipling: ‘Drift, wait, and obey.’

* * *

I feel increasingly non-everyman. I wince at non-fiction writing that uses ‘we’ and ‘you’, passing off the writer as some sort of default point of view. I wouldn’t dream of such an assumption. Which is why I can’t do that kind of work.

I don’t write to join in. I write to make sense of my own thoughts, then publish them in the hope they make a connection with the mind of a reader.  I can’t speak for my generation, my class, my gender, my country, my race, my historical era, or even for writers.

From this somewhat self-sabotaging stance, the hope is that what I write might be unique.  The fear is that it might be irrelevant.

* * *

Thursday 18th September 2014. What happiness means. I am sitting on the floor in a corner of a large library (Senate House today), pulling out several books at once and leafing through them on the spot, rather than taking them to a desk. Some are quite old (today it’s a 1950s four volume edition of The Arabian Nights).  No one is bothering me. I am not in anyone’s way. There are no screens or phones about. I think about the people who have turned these pages since the 50s, and those who have walked this floor since the 30s. The silence hangs and comforts.

* * *

Friday 19th September 2014. I wake to the news that the people of Scotland have voted a firm No to independence. I think this is a shame. A Yes result would at least have blown the cobwebs off so many centuries-old situations and systems, and that would have been no bad thing. Still, Mr Cameron has promised all kinds of new governing powers to the Scots by way of a thank you, and the referendum has triggered the start of an ongoing discourse over what nationhood means. What I found particularly uplifting was the huge turnout for voters up in Scotland, particularly amongst the young. I do hope this is the start of a new trend: more people using their vote. Perhaps even Russell Brand – who advocates non-voting – might admit he is wrong about something. That would be a new dawn indeed.

* * *

It’s a warm and sunny day, possibly the dying gasp of summer. Still a few flip-flop wearers about. I go to Camden to see the new Amy Winehouse statue. On the way, I stop off in Camden Square to see the older, more unofficial memorial: the decorated trees near her old house. Fresh messages and little gifts are still tied to the trunks, just as they’ve been since she died three years ago. One offering is a silver eyelash curler. A girl from Paris has included photos of herself in her laminated letter, dated a few weeks ago: her hair and make-up clearly emulating Ms Winehouse’s. ‘Amy Winehouse We Love You’ is scrawled over a nearby council sign, battling with the printed phrase ‘Clean Up After Your Dog’. As I walk on, I realise I’ve trodden in some dog shit.

It takes me fifteen minutes to walk to Camden Town proper. Here people from all over the world can be seen united in a single activity: eating cheap noodles from tinfoil tubs. The generations come and go, but Camden’s t-shirt stalls are clocks to consult for the pop culture of the day. Today I spot a t-shirt for Breaking Bad.

I find the Winehouse statue in Staples Market. It’s on a semi-circular sunken dais behind the Proud Camden building. This dais in turn juts over the lower ground level, so the statue looks like she’s performing onstage. The figure is close to the ground rather than on a plinth, and as she is more or less life-size she has a Madame Tussaud’s quality. More tourist attraction than memorial. You can put your arm around her, should you wish. In fact, I’m guessing this is the intention. And yet the tourists I see around me today seem hesitant to get too near. They take photos, but do not include themselves in the shot. I wonder if this is because it’s so new (installed September 14th), or if they feel too self-conscious, what with it being so conspicuous and public. Still, there’s some tidy bouquets at her feet, and with a letter of love from someone in Barcelona. The stature is grey except for a red rose in her beehive hairdo. The rose turns out to be real; it’s up to others to replace it. She would have been 31 this week.

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Joining The Ministry Of Truth

Saw this cartoon (thanks to Minerva Miller):

Good joke, though obviously it doesn’t bear much examination – the little girl is able to read the books ON the device. A library card is not much use as an object until you go to the library.

As before, I think it’s so wrong to view these things as competing with each other, or like mp3s versus vinyl. Better to think that when it comes to ways of accessing books, the more the merrier.

To this end, as well as being an avid Kindle user, I’ve just acquired my seventh London library card. It’s for the University of London’s Senate House, which caters for all the UOL colleges, Birkbeck included. Birkbeck’s own library is well-stocked, but I’ve already found that its limited copies of textbooks tend to get snapped up by the other students on my course if I’m not fast enough, even the reference copies. One option is to buy them, of course, but many of these doorstoppers cost upwards of £25 a time. Even if you resell them to other students when you’ve finished with them (via Amazon Marketplace, say) you still have to find the money upfront. And besides, it feels wasteful.

So I’m milking every possible library option. I’m currently a member of:

Haringey Libraries (public lending)
Islington Libraries (public lending)
Camden Libraries (public lending)
The British Library (public reference)
The London Library (private subscription, via their grant system)
Birkbeck Library (academic)
Senate House Library (academic)

Plus I’m getting a free SCONUL Access card, which lets me use a further 23 academic libraries in London.

So if I still can’t get hold of a book now, I know it won’t be for want of trying.

Getting a Senate House card has also been an ambition for years as a lover of beautiful buildings and libraries, ever since I was first shown it in the early 90s. This was while walking around Bloomsbury with Keith Girdler, the singer with Blueboy. He pointed out the way the building suddenly leered out at you with its gorgeous, Art Deco Orwellian majesty (literally Orwellian too – Senate House inspired the Ministry of Truth in 1984). He also told me it was a university library, so we couldn’t go inside.

Keith died of cancer a few years ago, not much older than me. I’d like to show him my new library card and say: thanks. Got there eventually, Keith.

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