The Freak Manifesto
Sunday 17 June 2018. Breakfast at Dalston Superstore, my regular Sunday habit. I sit there quietly by myself at one of the tables, usually reading the Sunday Times for the book charts, careful to finish before the lunchtime cabaret performance by a drag queen.
Am currently reading The Sound of Nonsense by Richard Elliott, reviewing it for The Wire. The book makes some fascinating links between the nonsense sound-words used in classic children’s literature, notably by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and the rather more adult nonsense of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A 1958 audio version of Alice in Wonderland is singled out for verging on the experimental. It was released on the Argo label, produced by Donald Cleverdon, with a 12-year-old Jane Asher as Alice.
Looking up Mr Cleverdon, I’ve since found out about a BBC Third Programme broadcast he produced in 1951, featuring ‘sequences’ from 1920s experimental literature, as chosen by V. S. Pritchett. There’s excerpts from Ulysses (Joyce), The Apes of God (Wyndham Lewis), The Flower Beneath the Foot (Firbank), Kangaroo (DH Lawrence), and To the Lighthouse (Woolf).Â I discover that the British Library owns an analogue recording of this. It will only be digitised and made accessible if someone puts in a request. I put in a request.
Also in the nonsense book, Mr Elliott discusses nonsense in music, both experimental and pop. He brings in Ivor Cutler and the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, as well as the ‘plunderphonic’ albums of John Oswald. Elliott quotes the Bonzos’ ‘My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe’. I love the section at the end when Vivian Stanshall performs a spoken word ramble. It is a mission statement for misfits; a freak manifesto:
‘Oh, who cares anyway because I do not… So, Norman, if you’re normal, I intend to be a freak for the rest of my life. And I shall baffle you with cabbages and rhinoceroses in the kitchen and incessant quotations from Now We Are Six through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty’s giant poisoned electric head… So THERE!’
The ‘there’ goes on forever, until the needle lifts off the record.
Tuesday 19 June 2018. What to believe in, when one writes? Strive for the perfect sentence? Yes, but also: dare to write a sentence that might be of use, if only to the lonely and the strange.
Strive to be quotable, too. I like how Hamlet is essentially a string of quotations. Alice in Wonderland likewise.
Wednesday 20 June 2018. To the Rio to see The Happy Prince, the Rupert Everett film about the last years of Oscar Wilde. Mr Everett writes, acts and directs the whole thing himself: clearly a labour of love.
It’s a neat complement to the Wilde of Stephen Fry, because it uses one of the fairy tales as a metaphor: the Fry film used ‘The Selfish Giant’. Both films have scenes in which Wilde reads the story to his sons.
But whereas Wilde presented a more public, fairly conventional take on Wilde (the sex scenes notwithstanding), Everett’s is much more personal, and more queer. His Wilde is a broken, complicated man at the mercy of his feelings. He is also an aging, single gay man battling an existential crisis, and that is a narrative one still doesn’t see very often. Young angsty gay men are fine (Call Me By Your Name), as are older happy ones with partners, or groups of friends, or poodles. But single, angst-ridden gay men of an older age? One gets the sense that the wider world doesn’t want to know. So this film does not care who cares for it, and that in itself makes it admirable.
Everett’s Bosie is Colin Morgan, who played the young Merlin on TV. With long blond hair he is barely recognisable, and threatens to steal the film. Bosie after the trial: the original toxic boyfriend. Still sexy in a reptilian way, but still destructive. And nice to see Colin Firth as Wilde’s pal Reggie Turner, the actor here helping out his real life friend Everett, all those years after they appeared as floppy-haired schoolboys in Another Country.
Actually, I think Another Country has fallen off the radar somewhat. Maybe in time it will only be known as a poster behind Paul Weller’s head, on the sleeve of the Style Council’s Our Favourite Shop.
Thursday 21 June 2018. Finished writing the review for The Wire. Lunch: tagliatelle at Café Deco in Store Street. A cheap, unfashionable café with tables in the basement, usually empty. All the students prefer the trendier Store Street Espresso nearby, or the café in Waterstones Gower Street, the window of which is usually full of pale bearded children, sitting at their pristine Mac laptops, seemingly all day.
One of the recurring subjects taught at university these days is the concept of utopias (and indeed dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale). The lack of money aside, student life is a utopia in itself. To sit all day in a Waterstones café, or the huge yet still packed cafe at the British Library, writing endless essays on Margaret Drabble (I imagine). Paradise of a kind. There are whispers of mythical things called offices, but no one here has ever seen one.
To the London College of Fashion, off Oxford Circus, to join the library there, part of the University of Arts. I think I have about twenty library cards now. And yet there’s still books which I do need to consult, which can only be found in one library. In this case, an admittedly obscure collection of essays on Sontag and camp.
Bump into Ben Moor in the basement café of Waterstones Tottenham Court Road – another little utopian cafe, with lots of tables. He asks if I am going to any of the many festivals this summer. No is the answer, really. I had a good time as a hanger-on at the Stoke Newington Lit Fest a few weeks ago. It taught me that I was fine with festivals as long as they’re in London (and a lot are).
The thing is, so many live events are recorded or podcasted now (Glastonbury on the BBC for instance). It doesn’t seem worth the inconvenience and expense purely to be in someone else’s audience. And indeed, I’d probably be envious of seeing all the other people who were booked instead of me, and be reminded of my own lack of bookings.
This isn’t vanity entirely. At one festival I went to, some young people came up to me to ask what time I was on. They didn’t know who I was: they just assumed that someone who looks like me must be a performer or a presenter. Given I hadn’t been booked, this was both flattering and depressing.
Still, there do seem to be more events than ever. And Grayson Perry can’t appear at all of them.
I really need to get some new work out, if only so it gives me a reason to appear at events.
Friday 22 June 2018. Cheap fish & chips at Birkbeck canteen (5th floor, overlooking RADA). Someone unkind has installed a flat-screen TV in the corner of the college canteen, tuned permanently to the coverage of the World Cup. This evening I’m the only customer in the canteen: the exams are over, and the summer term is nearly at an end. But the football burbles on in the background. If Gareth Southgate falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear him, does he still make a sound? In this instance, sadly for me, he does.
I read McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, prompted by the film coming out (which I’ve yet to see). The repressed sexuality theme is laid on so heavily, to the point where I laugh aloud. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be funny.
It’s an elongated short story, really, in the same tradition as ‘Cat Person’ more recently. The familiar narrative of the bad date. Mr McEwan tops up what is essentially a short story by adding details of the backstory of each character, and then gives us a look into the future at the end, though only for the young man. It’s odd that he denies the reader the girl’s later perspective. Still, McEwan’s clear, cold style is perfect for portraying a very English kind of awkwardness.
I contrast this by watching Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up show Nanette, hosted online by Netflix. The show has become a word-of-mouth hit – indeed, it had already won awards as a stage act. Her Netflix performance was filmed at the Sydney Opera House, no less.
I was aware of Ms Gadsby before. Like many comedians, her act involved jokes about the way she appears: in her case, a butch-looking lesbian with an Australian-sounding accent – Tasmanian, in fact. But on this occasion she takes the comedy into a questioning of the form itself. What is comedy for?
It’s something which only Stewart Lee is really doing at a high profile level, though Ms G adds a twist of female, gay anger. Why, she asks, she should have to play the self-mocking card, given that, as Quentin Crisp would say, she’s already at the mercy of the world? Â We learn that in Tasmania homosexuality was only legalised in the late 1990s. How easy it is to forget that the way things are in the UK are not the way things are everywhere, even in English-speaking countries.
What impresses chiefly is Ms Gadsby’s seamless shifting from jokes to politics to memoir to angry rant, and back again. And art history too: ‘Picasso wanted to paint a woman from every perspective at once – except the perspective of a woman’.
She’s meant to be giving up comedy after this, as proof of her frustration with the medium. I wonder if she’ll move into some sort of essay-cum-documentary form. Jonathan Meades and Adam Curtis do it, so why not her?
My landlady is away, so I’m feeding Fergus, her pet albino rat. He eats little specialist biscuits, though he prefers to grab each biscuit and scurry under his layers of blankets to eat it, out of sight. I know the feeling.
Monday 25 June 2018. Mum’s birthday. We spend the day in London together. I show her the London Library, though she finds the stacks with the cast iron grills set off her vertigo. If one looks down from the top floor, one can see the four or five floors of shelving beneath one’s feet. There’s no question of falling, unless one is a small wingless insect. But the awareness of stepping over so much raw vertical space is enough for Mum. Thankfully, there’s other sections, such as the rolling stacks in the basement, with their treasure trove of old journals and magazines.
Then to Mildred’s in Lexington Street in Soho, which it turns out is best visited at 2pm onwards: no queues. Then to the NPG for the BP portrait show, where we agree on the best effort: A portrait of two female painters by Ania Hobson. Two tough-looking women are shown sitting on a sofa, painted at such an unusual angle that one of the women’s high-heeled boots dominates the frame.
Tuesday 3 July 2018. Another hot day in a library, working away on the PhD. Except today I make a trip to Oxford to join the Bodleian. So another library card. ‘Yours is more powerful than the standard Oxford undergraduate’s card’, says the nice lady in Admissions. ‘Oxford is your oyster’.
Except that I only want to access the one item: Alan Hollinghurst’s M.Litt thesis, on Firbank, Forster and LP Hartley. Written 1979. Despite the feeling that everything old is now available online, there’s still documents like this which have never been digitised – I think AH might have specified this. So the only way to read the thing is to make to the trip in person to the David Reading Room, high up on the fifth floor of the Weston Library, the shiny modern part of the Bodleian.
I have to hand over my reader’s ticket when collecting the thesis. I also have to sign my name on a sort of visitor’s book slip, which is attached to the flyleaf. All the previous borrowers are listed on older layers of slips underneath. It’s like the old date stamps on a library book, but with the added benefit of seeing the names of the borrowers too. A palimpsest effect. The history of an object. Handled by all these other people since 1980.
I recognise the names of some of the previous users, because they’ve written articles about Firbank or Hollinghurst: Allan Johnson, Richard Canning, Paul Vlitos, Emily Horton, Joseph Bristow. And there’s my friend and fellow indie musician turned scholar, Martin Wallace. And now, today, I add my name to the list.
The thesis is an A4 black hardback, made of typewritten pages with the odd handwritten correction. Hollinghurst is full of praise for Brigid Brophy’s Prancing Novelist (1973). He also writes that Firbank’s campness ‘dissolves’ any sense of moral judgement, due to its inspiration by ‘the suzerainty of the libido’.
(‘If you knew suzerainty of the libido like I knew suzerainty of the libidoâ€¦.’)
I break for lunch at the pub opposite, the King’s Arms, which I think I’ve been to before, with Oxford friends, decades ago. The football is on the screens.
Barman: You looking forward to the match?
Me: Not really. Football is… awful.
Actually, I don’t say that. I just like the idea of doing so. But the ‘Three Lions’ song from 1996 is now everywhere, so no one can blame me.
Perhaps ‘Three Lions’ is the true legacy of Britpop. Yet it’s not even a World Cup song: it’s a European Cup song. According to David Baddiel, the ‘football’s coming home’ phrase was originally a reference to England’sÂ hostingÂ of the Euro 96 tournament, which makes more sense.
But oh, how one hears it now, yelled in that guttural, frightening, tribal manner.
Football’s coming home?
I’m at home, and I’ve never heard the end of it.
Still, as with the royal wedding, one mustn’t begrudge the joy of others.Â What gets me far more excited is the discovery at Ryman’s that Bic are now selling their fine-tipped biros in packs of four.
Saturday 7 July 2018. I walk through Tavistock Square, past the little plaque marking the explosion of the bus on 7/7. Today is the 13th anniversary. There’s fresh bouquets: one from a family to a lost daughter.
England are in the World Cup quarter finals, and the big Pride march is on too. I don’t go, but I enjoy the surge on the tube of sparkly boys. My landlady is in the march, which reminds me of something Quentin Crisp says in his one man show, on stage in New York in the late 1970s: ‘The other day my landlady got into the wrong march. That’ll give you an idea of what’s going on there’.
In the British Library I consult the 1929 five-volume set of Firbank’s collected works. Osbert Sitwell provides an introductory essay in the first volume, calling RF’s books ‘the product of the war â€¦ more truly than any others in the English language’. Really? More so than Wilfred Owen?
For one artist to champion another involves a degree of vanity. Nothing delights a film critic more than seeing their review quoted on a poster. It makes them feel like they matter after all.
Still, it is true that WW1 forced Firbank into taking writing seriously. I like the idea of the spirit of English camp fiction passing from Saki into Firbank the moment HH Munro was shot dead in the trenches. (Not quite: Munro died in 1916; Firbank’s Vainglory came out in 1915).
I’m writing this in Café Route, Dalston Square. The young man next to me on this window bench has just left and been replaced by someone looking exactly the same. Shorts, t-shirt, backpack, laptop, quiff hairdo.
Wednesday 11 July 2018. To Gordon Square for a meeting with my PhD supervisor. This marks the end of my first year as a PhD student. Dr B is more or less happy with my work so far, and gives me plenty of suggestions as to which paths to go down next. My plan is now to get the second chapter finished by the end of September: 15,000 words, of which I already have written 10,000. All being well, I should then have enough material for the ‘upgrade’ to proper PhD status in my second year, which for a part-timer is quite speedy.
I work in the London Library till 8pm, then take the tube home. The World Cup semi-final with England is taking place this evening. The current manager, Gareth Southgate, is known for wearing a waistcoat with suit trousers. On him it’s admittedly quite stylish, but now the media and the fans have all gone a bit silly and started promoting this look as a sign of fandom. Football ‘cosplay’, I suppose. So today I have to ensure I do not wear a waistcoat, for fear of being engaged in a conversation about football.
Despite the increase in the amount of women football fans, there’s still a clear gender bias among those who are defiantly indifferent. This is evidenced by my tube journey home. Most of the other passengers around me are women. It’s the same as I walk past restaurant windows: a sudden awareness of women dining with other women. All the men have gone away. It’s like being in Y: The Last Man.
At home I check Twitter to learn that England have lost. I am sad about this, but the silver lining is that the song ‘Three Lions’ is instantly redundant. People in pubs are instead singing the Monty Python song ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life’, from Life of Brian, a film that criticises crowds acting in mindless unison.
To stop myself getting too grumpy, I think of the many intellectual and artistic treatments of the game that I do like, such as the novels of David Peace, or the Tom Stoppard play Professional Foul.
There is an anecdote on Ronald Firbank and football, as told by Vyvyan Holland in 1929:
‘Firbank never played games, though he occasionally appeared in the costume of sport, apparently returning from some strenuous and probably purely imaginary form of exercise. Seeing him once clad in a sweater and football shorts, I asked him what on earth he had been doing. ‘Oh, football,’ he replied. ‘Rugger or Soccer?’ ‘Oh, I don’t remember’ – and a laugh. ‘Well, was the ball round or egg-shaped?’ ‘Oh! I was never near enough to it to see that!’
(from Ronald Firbank: A Memoir, ed. by I. Â K. Fletcher, 1930).
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Tags: alan hollinghurst
, bodleian library
, bonzo dog doo dah band
, Dalston superstore
, donald cleverdon
, hannah gadsby
, ian mcewan
, oscar wilde
, richard elliott
, ronald firbank
, rupert everett
, the happy prince
, The London Library
, the sound of nonsense
, vivian stanshall
, vyvyian holland
Everybody Loves Raymond
Thursday 17th May 2018. To the Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an evening of archive documentaries, all on the subject of Raymond Williams. The co-organiser, Colm McAuliffe, is in the same PhD group as myself. He had wanted to call tonight’s event ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, but someone had advised him that this would be frivolous. He mentions this anecdote in his spoken introduction, thus getting mileage out of the joke after all.
The documentaries in question are Border Country from 1972, and The Country and The City from 1979. The latter was made to tie in with Mr Williams’s book of the same name. The book is a set text at Birkback: I consulted it when writing an essay about London.
Both these films feature Williams wandering around the landscape of England and Wales, on the 1970s. He walks and talks to the camera, and often smokes a pipe while doing so. Sometimes he uses the pipe as a means of punctuation, finishing his sentence, then inserting the pipe into his mouth and walking off into the distance. A fluid, natural movement to him, but one which these days would be rare. Williams’s pipe is his prosthetic, much as smartphones are prosthetics today. People regard them as part of their own body. My fellow student Simon King tells me of the verb ‘to lunt’, meaning to walk while smoking a pipe. The OED regards this meaning as too obscure, though, and only allows ‘lunt’ to mean ‘to smoke a pipe’ full stop, regardless of any auxiliary behaviour.
Finally there’s a screening of a 1980s TV studio discussion, made just after Williams’s death. Possibly BBC2, late night. Or Channel 4, from the time when Channel 4 catered for intellectuals. Terry Eagleton, Stuart Hall and others sit apart from each other in a circle, in an overly lit red-draped TV studio, with a mysterious vase of lilies in the middle. It is the Open University as directed by David Lynch.
Williams’s book ‘Keywords’ is mentioned as one of those life-changing, mind-improving books people buy to press into the hands of others. After the films, there’s a panel discussion, and the question arises about where a discussion like the 1980s one might be found today: it seems too highbrow even for BBC4. I’d say possibly a segment in Newsnight, though these days the guests would have been booked purely with a hope to getting a shouting match, and so produce a clickbait clip to pass around on the internet.
Afterwards, some of us repair to a pub in Marston Street, an unpretentious one of the kind that still exists in London. It is covered in union jacks and bunting, with lots of images of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle looking like their own Madame Tussaud’s dummies.
Friday 18 May 2018. Working on the paper for the Work in Progress conference at Birkbeck.
A current irritant: the backpack. Perfectly acceptable in its place, such as on the cover of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. But today’s backpackers are not walking across Europe, or even going to a rock festival. They are merely going to work. The backpack has replaced the briefcase. On the tube, every day is Glastonbury Day.
These things are ugly enough, but the imposture extends when the backpacker gets into a congested tube carriage or a lift, like the ones at Russell Square that I endure every day. Soon, without realising it, the backpack is pushing into the face of a stranger. More considerate wearers take their backpack off, holding the things in front of them until there is more space to become the human version of a long vehicle once again. I long for this fashion to move on.
Saturday 19 May 2018. A British prince and an American divorcee get married, with pleasing historical resonance. I avoid the wedding itself, but glance at some of the reports and photos. Today I’m in the London Library reading Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot, a novel which ends with a royal wedding.
There probably will not be another royal wedding on this scale for another 25 years, so I suppose one must not begrudge the pleasure this one provides for so many. I do find it intriguing how the royal-loving public nevertheless likes some royals much more than others. One of the Duchess of York’s daughters is also marrying in Windsor later in the year, but it is unlikely that there will be quite the same level of public attention. It seems that even people who like royal weddings have taste.
Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m thinking about Tom Wolfe, who died this week. His dandyism was a hangover from the New Journalism movement, when American writers were encouraged to look as stylish as their prose. Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion – they all played up to the camera as much as the typewriter. They worked on their brand.
When it comes to beach shorts and Hawaiian shirts, Hunter S Thompson is the exception that proves the rule: only he is allowed to dress like that. Joan Didion’s photographs indicate hours of learning how to pose – usually with a cigarette angled just so.
And so it was with Tom Wolfe. The white suits kept his writing on the radar. I discover now that he was fairly conservative in his politics. This is true of many dandies and white suit wearers; Â Trump’s friend Roger Stone is the most notorious example. The left wing look, meanwhile, favours a pipe (Raymond Williams, Tony Benn, Umberto Eco, Harold Wilson). Quite why a pipe should signify socialism is beyond me: the odorous things are incredibly anti-social.
The other lefty look is, of course, the Bob Dylan cap. As favoured by Lenin and, indeed, Lennon. And now, Corbyn. Dylan himself did both looks, exchanging the cap and the denims for Swinging London suits when he went electric. In the process, he adopted if not quite a conservative look, certainly a more camp look (an electric guitar is more camp than an acoustic one). Todd Haynes’s film has Dylan played by a woman at this point (Cate Blanchett), putting a neat spin on the idea of a ‘Judas’.
The trouble is, I’m writing all this while dressed like Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m going through old computer files, in the process of backing up my data. I’d been meaning to do so since I went to a talk by a British Library archivist. He warned that hard drives can start to degrade after a mere five years. A new external hard drive is pricier than I thought – £45 is the cheapest one at Argos – but the space it gives, 1000GB, makes the computers of one’s youth so laughable. Magazine adverts in the 1980s promising the glories of extra RAM chips of 64k.
I find an old review of the first Fosca album. Quite damning. The critic is an Orlando fan who says I went from articulating universal angst (Orlando) to peddling idiosyncratic misanthropy (Fosca). The truth is that these were not phases but facets. The idea that people are monolithic has never found favour with me. People are complicated, but this does not fit with the instinct to judge someone as one thing only.
Still, no review lasts like a negative review. The original is not online – I think it was just written for a webzine. It may only exist today on this old digital file I’ve just found. The author may even have forgotten it himself. But years later here I am brooding upon it.
I once saw a documentary on Radiohead’s album OK Computer. It was the most praised album of its time. This was mainly because it came on the heels of Britpop, and everyone was just relieved that bands were now allowed to sound different from Oasis. Yet the singer, Mr Yorke, was shown dwelling morosely on a rare negative review he had come across. It was the only one he believed.
Many people flatter their favourite writers or musicians in an attempt to become their friend. This rarely succeeds. If you really want to make an impact on the mind of your hero, give them a bad review.
Wednesday 23 May 2018. To the Rio to see Jeune Femme. French film (obviously), in which a young-ish woman is kicked out of her boyfriend’s Paris flat and has to fend for herself, looking for jobs and accommodation on the way. It burbles along pleasantly in this picaresque, if narcissistic fashion; not so much a story as time spent with a character.
Thursday 24 May 2018. To the ICA for ‘Queers Read This’, an evening of queer-related prose and poetry. The ICA theatre space is unchanged since the days of Kathy Acker: the same scuffed black room. I watch Joanna Walsh and Isabel Waidner perform, and I say hi afterwards. There’s a young man in red high heels who’s put out a book on Queer Loneliness. He in turn reads a piece by Olivia Laing, who also put out a book on loneliness. Both people seem well connected, so one presumes they’re not quite so lonely any more. I’d feel lonely myself, having turned up on my own, but Martin Wallace is here, and he keeps me company. We talk about the dilemma of being Morrissey fans, now that the great man has begged his admirers to vote for an anti-Islamic political party, For Britain. I’m just glad I’m not doing any indie music DJ-ing at the moment.
Friday 25 May 2018. To 30 Russell Square for a Birkbeck talk about careers after the PhD – specifically ones unrelated to academia. One speaker works for the Ministry of Defence. It sounds well paid, but she admits that her heart is really in academia – and she’s trying to get academic work published alongside that job.
Owen Hatherley is the other speaker: a foppish Birkbeck PhD graduate who has become a respected author, specialising in architecture. He bemoans not making a huge living as a freelance writing – especially now that freelance rates are frozen or are even getting lower.
The pitfalls of writing a non-fiction book, according to Mr H, are that if it’s with a small publisher and it’s not a massive seller, there’s unlikely to be a new edition. So any factual errors in the book are left seemingly unaddressed, shaming the writer down the years.
Wednesday 30 May 2018. To Covent Garden Odeon with Jon S to see Avengers: Infinity War. Although I’m not a superhero fan, I find this to be a far more entertaining film than the first Avengers one a few years ago. Here the emphasis is on teasing the audience that the good guys might not win after all – indeed that some favourite characters might die. Except they won’t, of course. This is the true ‘infinity war’: the struggle to convince audiences that an immortal character can die. Immortal as in the way Sherlock Holmes is immortal: he is a creature of infinity too.
Genre heroes are also trademarks and franchises, and any franchise similarly exists in a spirit of infinity. How many branches of Pret A Manger can be enough? If it were down to me, I’d open a chain of cafes called Borges Burgers, plus a chain of Hilbert Hotels.
‘Infinity? Is that old thing still going?’
Saturday 2 June 2018. Spend all day in Gordon Square, attending the PhD students’ in-house-only ‘Work in Progress’ conference. This is a laid-back affair. It is organised by students in the upper years and generally intended to get us in the habit of academic life. I am on in the morning, and deliver my paper on Firbank’s monocled publisher, Grant Richards.
Of the other papers, I am intrigued by one presented by the poet Sogol Sur, on ‘The Iranian Queer’. I learn that the language Farsi has genderless pronouns. As progressive as this may sound, it has meant that some Iranian poetry expressing same-sex love has been translated into English with the wrong pronouns, effectively heterosexualising the work.
Helena Esser presents research from her thesis on steampunk, which comes with that very contemporary reference: a Netflix recommendation – the documentary Vintage Tomorrows. I also enjoy Simon King on a psychogeographic walk inspired by Woolf’s Orlando. He quotes the passage where the boy Orlando sits by the oak tree on a hill and is able to see ‘nineteen English counties [â€¦] and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty’. This unlikely calculation is, I’d say, an example of the camp tone of the novel: that playful sense of exaggeration.Â Camp is not just playing with gender: it is the whole feeling of pumping things up in a knowing way.
Then a couple of talks from Julia Bell, Birkbeck’s top creative writing tutor, and Sophie Jones, a youthful tutor who once taught me in a class on the BA, though neither of us can remember the text in question.
Sunday 3 June 2018. Brunch at La Duchesse café on Stoke Newington Church Street, then along the road to pick up a guest pass to the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, courtesy of Travis E. I attend a few events: a performance of Wilfred Owen’s war poems by Penny Rimbaud, which takes place in the atmospheric Old Church. I also go to Travis’s own event with Margaret Willes, discussing John Evelyn’s diaries alongside Pepys, and then diaries in general. They remind me that so many well-known diaries are by gay men: Jarman, Orton, Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward, Keith Vaughan, James Agate, Denton Welch, Alan Bennett. One theory might be the lack of children, though in Orton’s case I was always amazed he found the energy alongside all the sex.
Then to ‘Juke Box Fury’, presented by Richard Boon, in which guests talk about favourite songs. This year the guests are all record sleeve designers. One guest has a t-shirt spoofing John Lennon’s ad: ‘BREXIT IS OVER (if you want it)’. The thing is, I wonder how Lennon himself, who would be in his seventies now, would vote. Given the musical conservatism of his solo work, I can easily see him supporting the Leave vote.
Finally I attend ‘Sex, Love & Monogamy’, a comedy lecture by Rosie Wilby, with a poetry slot by Salena Godden. By this point I’m in a pleasant drunken haze – the sort of light hedonism I haven’t done for a long while.
I speak to Andy Miller off the Backlisted podcast. Then spend time with Sophie Parkin and Tim Wells, repairing to the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill, which is rather like the Boogaloo. I also spot Suzanne Moore, the recognisable columnist, closely followed by Thurston Moore, the even more recognisable rock musician. There’s a Half Man Half Biscuit song in there somewhere.
The festival green room is an old reference library, now used as the repository for Hackney Council’s housebound service. They deliver books & audiobooks to the incapacitated – the most used service of its kind in London. For the festival guests there are not only books to read, but also a free prosecco pump. Borges’s quote about paradise being a library acquires a vital detail.
Monday 4 June 2018. I call Mum: her hand is out of the plaster cast and she’s gently getting back to normal, via physiotherapy.
I have now watched A Very English Scandal twice and I am still not satisfied.
Tuesday 5 June 2018. Breakfast at L’Atelier, a hip café on the Kingsland Road: stripped walls, dangling light fittings, no sign outside, an unbranded bohemian atmosphere, bearded men with small dogs, a row of Mac laptops, buzzing smartphones among the flat whites.
I join the Wellcome Library in Euston, mainly to read Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado, though the library has an older edition with the author’s former female name on the cover. At the time of the book’s writing (2008), he was a butch woman taking testosterone as part of a philosophical experiment into gender.
The book is written in a poetic, fragmentary style, with much digression into memoir, theory and history, rather like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Though Nelson’s book was about the partner of a natal female taking testosterone, whereas Preciado’s is from the hormone-taker’s point of view. If The Argonauts is a gateway drug, Testo Junkie is the hard stuff.
Wednesday 6 June 2018. To Senate House in Malet Street, to see my mental health counsellor.
Her: What do you think needs to change?
Me: Other people.
In Senate House lobby there are lots of security guards standing around. To each side of the central staircase are groups of young people lying on the floor, blocking the way. Some of them are blowing whistles. These turn out to be protestors in ‘Occupy’ mode. I presume it’s to do with the recent protests against the outsourcing of cleaning staff. The protestors let me pass, thankfully. I am sympathetic with their cause, though not to the point of joining them in the dust.
A few days I later I see photographs of a Free Tommy Robinson march becoming mixed up with this year’s Naked Bike Ride. Jokes about arses suggest themselves.
I once thought of going on a march – the cause now forgotten – with a placard saying, ‘MY VIEWS ON THIS ISSUE ARE FAR TOO NUANCED FOR ONE PLACARD’.
The only proper protest march I’ve ever been on was an Anti-Nazi rally in the early 90s. I remember having whistles blown in my ear, and feeling utterly out of place. It felt – perhaps unfairly – that protest was a social pastime first, and a means of change second. It felt like you had to enjoy crowds to do them; all shouting and chanting and the joy of being the one among the many – a joy which I do not share. Perhaps I lack the Mass Protest Gene, in the same way that I lack the Glastonbury Gene. I feel awkward and unsafe in a crowd. As Quentin Crisp said, there is danger in numbers.
Dandyism is the only solution: recognizing one’s failure to join the crowd, then turning this into an identity. A protest march made up of one person. And a dandy can still vote, and sign petitions, and raise awareness.
Thursday 7 June 2018. To Hackney Picturehouse with Shanti to see My Friend Dahmer. Followed by a delicious meal at Mildred’s in Dalston Square, the trendy chain of vegetarian restaurants. The film is well made, if fairly standard arthouse fare: a character study of a mixed up teenager as he tries to make friends at school. Rather close to home, the murders aside.
Friday 8 June 2018. To the exhibition at the Peltz Gallery, Transitional States, followed by a talk with one of the artists, Raju Rage, plus a woman who’s doing a PhD on the work of Paul B. Preciado. I now realise that Preciado must have changed their name and gender identity halfway through this lady’s PhD, which must surely have had an effect on her thesis. With a PhD, as opposed to an MA, one is very much at the mercy of one’s subject, and a living subject is a moving target.
Monday 11 June 2018. To Gordon Square for my annual ‘monitoring’ interview, to check on my progress as a doctoral student. This is conducted by a third party tutor, Dr Caroline Edwards, rather than one of my supervisors. It all seems to go well. The failed bid for funding aside, I’ve had a fairly good first year on the PhD. Four papers accepted at conferences, plus at least 27,000 words written for the PhD itself. The trick now is, as Dr E says, to keep up the momentum.
Wednesday 13 June 2018. Evening: to Gordon Square at the invite of my old MA tutor, Grace Halden. I am one of four PhD students addressing a class of MA students, telling them about my experiences of doing a thesis. Grace encourages me to be honest, so I talk about the idea of worth: how the lack of funding has made me brood on thoughts of my research having no worth, and that this in turn can make me feel that I have no worth as a human being full stop. This is not a rare emotion, though, and a few of the other speakers are equally gloomy about their financial prospects. This society puts so much emphasis on, as Wilde said, ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
It’s good to be reminded that Wilde himself saw particular ‘value’ in that quote, using it in both Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan. In Lady Windermere (Act 3, said by Lord Darlington) it’s about the definition of a cynic. In Dorian, Lord Henry says ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (Chapter 3 of the 1890 magazine version, Chapter 4 of the 1891 novel version). I rather think it’s the Dorian version that applies at the moment.
Thankfully, I’m not quite as energised about this as I was a few months ago. I now focus on what I alone recognise as ‘worth’, and try to take faith from that – the Van Gogh approach, I suppose. Plus I acknowledge the worth of the fee waiver, and the unpriceable worth of my supervisor.
I still struggle with the fact that I am essentially doing an unpaid internship – for myself. But the positive spin is that this is still preferable to doing an unpaid internship for someone else.
Thursday 14th June 2018. I meet up with Sarah K Marr for a drink in Bloomsbury. Have just finished reading her debut novel, All the Perverse Angels. The book jumps between a contemporary narrative and a Victorian one, via diaries and letters. There is a main theme of lesbian romance, though the twentieth century protagonist’s sexuality is entirely matter-of-fact: her more pressing stigma is her mental health. She sees the world, and events and emotions and memories, first as colours, and then more specifically as known paintings. As she is the main narrator, the reader is forced to share her strange, unreliable, dream-like perspective.
The story gets going when she finds a Victorian painting in the attic of a Cotswold cottage. It’s a Pre-Raphaelite-style retelling of the Iphis and Ianthe myth from Ovid – which reminds me of Ali Smith’s similarly Sapphic version of the myth from a few years ago, Girl Meets Boy. Because of the heavy use of paintings as part of a homosexual narrative, I thought of the tradition of ekphrasis (the rendering of paintings into prose) as a queer literary device. Ekphrasis can reclaim the default framing of the world: a queer eye for the queer guy. The best example is Dorian Gray, but Wilde does it again in his short story The Portrait of Mr W. H. Â Hollinghurst’s latest, The Sparsholt Affair, updates the tradition by comparing it to the present world of Tumblr and Grindr.
All the Perverse Angels is an example of lesbian ekphrasis: women falling in love with women in paintings, driven by curiosity mingled with desire and a need for self-projection. It’s closer to The Portrait of Mr W. H. than Dorian Gray, in that there’s also a puzzle to be solved. I was reminded of how much I like the genre of historical mysteries – if it’s done well. It’s a genre lately belittled by the trashy Mr Dan Brown and his imitators. A better example is Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. The theme of dream-like crushes between girls in historical settings also evokes Charlotte Sometimes and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The World Cup has begun, and it’s hard to find a single pub which isn’t commandeered by visible groups of Blokes suddenly appearing everywhere. Blokes with a capital ‘B’, with their endless reserved tables in front of TV screens. I spend my life going to classes on gender theory, queer theory, feminist issues and transgender issues, and somehow expect everyone else to be doing the same. So it’s a shock to me that there’s still men like this around today – it’s like finding out that Page 3 of the Sun is still going.
Or perhaps these men are really historians dressing up in tribute to the way men used to be, like the Sealed Knot Society (is there a society for reconstructing Civil War reconstructions? A Sealed Knot Society Society?)
I want to stand on a pub table and shout to these men, ‘But where do you stand on Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performativity?’ (Answer: ‘It’s a bit gassy’)
Friday 15 June 2018. Favourite films change behind your back. On re-watching Withnail & I, I find myself siding with the old ladies in the tearoom.
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Tags: all the perverse angels
, gordon square
, my friend dahmer
, oscar wilde
, Paul Preciado
, raymond williams
, ronald firbank
, royal wedding
, sarah k marr
, stoke newington literary festival
, testo junkie
, withnail & I
An @ Of One’s Own
Saturday 13th June 2015.
I walk through Waterloo Station. The whole building has been turned into an advert for the new Jurassic Park film. Looped video trailers flank the train announcement boards, while the movie’s logo dots the entire concourse floor. In the centre of the station, a tableau of fibreglass full-sized dinosaurs are caught in the act of breaking out of their container. I bristle at this assault by Hollywood on my consciousness, but then feel guilty when I see small children taking delight in posing with the daftÂ static creatures. It’s got dinosaurs in it, so children will be happy.
I’ve not seen the film, but I’m guessing that it involves something going wrong at a dinosaur park.
* * *
Evening: I watch a nostalgic TV show marking 20 years since Britpop. It feels far too soon, butÂ I suppose two decades ago is long enough. A whole generation ago. The funny thing is it gives me flashbacks, not of the 90s, but of a previous 90s nostalgia show from the early 2000s: I Heart the 1990s. One episode had Edwyn Collins introducing himself with the phrase, ‘Hi! I’m Edwyn ‘A Girl Like You’ Collins!’
So a new 90s nostalgia show triggers my nostalgia for an old 90s nostalgia show.
In the same way that Wikipedia has outsourced knowing things first hand, TV’s love of editingÂ history to suit a convenient format has replaced first hand, organic, untidy memory. I feel that many of my actual memories of the 90s have been taped over in my head, replaced with 90s nostalgia pieces.
However, one thing that the run of 90s programmes seems to omit is how OK Computer changed music in 1997, just as much as Britpop did in 1994. After that, a huge swathe of rock bands switched from trying to be Oasis to trying to be Radiohead. The blueprint was now for big, mournful, stadium-friendly rock, devoid of any sense of a generational or national identity; angsty yet tasteful. The end result was Coldplay. But perhaps the full meaning of 1997 is something to look forward to in 2017.
* * *
Sunday 14th June 2015.
I visit the club TheÂ Nitty Gritty, at the Constitution bar in Camden. The DJ is Debbie Smith, a fellow 90s rock survivor, given her stints back then in the bands Curve and Echobelly. At The Nitty Gritty though, she plays a highly enjoyable set of vintage soul, R&B and 60s girl groups, to a very cool-looking crowd of vintage-dressed, andÂ queer-friendlyÂ customers. One woman – a staffer, I think – has a kind of immaculate rockabilly take on Amy Winehouse’s look. Camden still has a certain fizzy life to it, if you know where to go.
As I enter the bar from the Regent’s Canal towpath, Ms Smith is playing ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy’ by Lesley Gore. It’s a tune I used to have as my band Fosca’s going-onstage music. And here I am entering a room to the song once again.
* * *
Monday 15th June 2015.
More coincidences. Today I’m re-reading Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, including the part where the narrator imagines the whole Magna Carta ceremony. It’s only afterwards that I realise today is the 800th anniversary of the signing.
Jerome’s ‘J’ subscribes to the theory that the event took place on Magna Carta Island itself, rather than on the opposite bank of the Thames, at Runnymede:
Had I been one of the Barons, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks. (Three Men In A Boat, Chapter 12).
* * *
The Queen’s Birthday Honours this week. My favourite reason for declining an honour: ‘So aging!’ – Francis Bacon. Favourite for accepting: ‘I thought of the people it would annoy’ – Kingsley Amis.
* * *
Tuesday 16th June 2015.
I watch the second episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell, the BBC4 series. Pleased to see Stephen Tennant given a look-in. And lots of shots of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, inside and out, due to its previous life as a Bloomsbury Group location.
Ms Coren Mitchell manages to have her moral cake and eat it, regarding Eric Gill’s incest and bestiality. ‘I’d like to go back in time and kneecap Eric Gill’, she says at one point, in case anyone was in doubt on where she stands on sexual abuse. Still, I suppose this is 2015, and it’s the BBC, with its Gill sculptures on the outside of Broadcasting House (one of which is now surrounded by the livery of a Caffe Nero), so some obvious things still have to be said aloud.
To her credit, though, Ms CM also lets interviewees with opposing views make their case. Grayson Perry challenges her scornÂ of the Bloomsbury Group’s snobbery and privilege: ‘Are we awarding creative points for being poor, or for being creative?’, while Richard Coles asserts how important it is that Gill’s sculptures remain in place, not only on the BBC building, but also in Westminster Cathedral: they serve as a reminder that ‘the sinner stands at the heart of Christianity’. Trust the art, not the artist.
* * *
I never felt like those people formerly in bands who look back on their music as a weird ‘phase’. I’m even weirder now.
* * *
Wednesday 17th June 2015.
To Senate House for the London Graduate Fair. Very crowded, lots of stalls. The actual type of work seems to be quite limited. Nothing arty. No publishers of literature, no arts organisations. As far as I can tell, the main options for graduates seem to be: the warzone of corporate management, the warzone of school teaching, or, given the prominent British Army stall, actual war.
A group of uniformed soldiers have various weapons lined up on trestle tables: bazookas, grenade launchers, rifles. It’s like a Fresher’s Fair, only with fewer Pot Noodles and more guns. I last fifteen minutes, which is longer than I’d last in the army. I suppose an ability to write High First Class essays on Oscar Wilde might be handy when battling insurgents in Helmand Province, but I didn’t stay to find out.
* * *
Thursday 18th June 2015.
To Jacksons Lane Community Centre for a new experience: a class in Pilates. ‘This is not going to be pretty,’ I think. ‘Not least because I have to wear something other than a suit.’
I turn out to be the only man in a class of women, andÂ the least experienced by far; I’ve still never stepped inside a gym. But the female tutor is very sympathetic. She comes over to me whenever I’m struggling (which is often) and never makes me feel a fool. It’s hard work, and confusing at times, as I’m trying to work out how to move parts of my body which I’m fairly sure I’ve never moved before. On top of that, I have to work out when to breathe – something I keep forgetting to do, on account of trying to keep up with the instructions. But the effect is like blowing the dust off an entire lifetime. I feel the better for it afterwards, and decide to keep it up.
As for what I wore: my baggy grey jogging bottoms (though I haven’t gone running in years). Plus my sole t-shirt. It’s a promotional shirt for an absinthe company.
* * *
Friday 19th June 2015.
I walk up Shaftesbury Avenue and see that the new Picturehouse cinema has just opened: Picturehouse Central. It’s in the shell of the old CineWorld Shaftesbury Avenue, in the northwest section of the Trocadero. Although much of the Picturehouse is still not ready (including the rooftop members bar), it is already a vast improvement on its former self. The Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue will not be missed. Tacky, windowless and claustrophobic, it always felt like part of a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall. But then, a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall was pretty much what the Trocadero had become in recent years. Central London has always been torn between an embracing of garish franchises and souvenir shops, and a love of rarer emporiums steeped in history, character, and personality. The Picturehouses may be a chain, but they’re closer to Waterstones than WH Smith. A sense of humanity, rather than raw, faceless commerce.
The new cinema’s ground floor café does look a bit like a Shoreditch eatery, with its ceiling stripped back to the bare brick and concrete, and its air ducting and dangling light fittings on conspicuously trendy display. But there’s some nice proper booths with tables – rather like those in the late New Piccadilly Café in nearby Denman Street. When my veggie sandwich arrives on a proper china plate, and not on a recycled hubcap or an on old vinyl album, I find myself warming to the place.
(There is currently a popular social media account called ‘We Want Plates’. It campaigns against the trend in arty restaurants to present their meals on anything from wooden boards to slabs of rock. I have to admit I,Â too, want plates).
The wall of the café is covered in a mural rendered in a naïve, David Shrigley-like doodle, onÂ the theme of cinema. There’s scenes from cinema history, diagrams on narrative theory, and fictional examples of cinema archetypes, such as ‘Man Shouting Out Of A Prius In LA, On His Way To A Thing’. As for the actual films, there’s seven screens, including a 341-seater with Dolby Atmos, whatever that is. The type ofÂ films on offer seem to be a bit of everything: in this first week, you can choose between the artyÂ likes of Carol Morley’s The Falling,Â the critically lovedÂ GirlhoodÂ and London Road, and documentaries like The Look of Silence and Dark Horse. And if you absolutelyÂ must,Â there’s also Jurassic World 3D.
* * *
To Senate House Library in Malet Street, where I hand back my remaining library books in time for the expiry of my BA-affiliated membership card. Another sign of the degree coming to an end.
Birkbeck’s summer term still has a couple of weeks left, so tonight I attend an open lecture in the basement of Gordon Square. It’s on the history of sexuality, by Heike Bauer, one of the tutors who marked my dissertation.
Dr Bauer quotes the building’s old resident Virginia Woolf, in AÂ Room of One’s Own. OneÂ problem when it comes to discussing sexuality in history is that as Woolf puts it, ‘fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact’.
Dr B also quotes a more modern example of a discussion on the subject: a recent Twitter conversation between herself and various other academics, who managed to boil down their arguments into 140 characters. Less than 140, in fact, as they need characters for the hashtags and the other ‘@’ names. In 2015, a paper’s abstract (its summary) is not nearly abstract enough.
Today, Woof’s ideal of a private room is less urgent, as so many writers enjoy working in crowded cafes and libraries, or even outdoors (a common sight on social media is a photo of a sunny park, with the caption: ‘My office today!’). Now, it’s more important to have an ‘@’ sign of one’s own.
Dr B also focuses on the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, he of the 1920s Berlin Institute of Sexology, as visited by Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind. She talks about how Hirschfeld visited Cambridge sometime around 1905-7, while Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland was studying there. However, he was careful to avoid bumping into young Holland and embarrassing him, due to the shame associated with his father. The very words ‘Oscar Wilde’ were, at this time, absolutely synonymous with male homosexuality, and his reputation was yet to recover. Instead, Hirschfeld witnessed a group of students – a kind of secret Edwardian Cambridge Gay Soc- who gathered together to read ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in a ritual of solidarity. On their shirts they wore Wilde’s prison number: C33.
I’m reminded of John Betjeman’s poem ‘Narcissus’, about his childhood. In the poem, Betjeman’s mother chastises him for bonding too much with a friend. This would have been in the early 1910s:
My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.
, bloomsbury group
, debbie smith
, eric gill
, grayson perry
, heike bauer
, jacksons lane community centre
, jerome k jerome
, john betjeman
, magna carter
, nitty gritty
, oscar wilde
, picturehouse central
, richard coles
, victoria coren mitchell
, virginia woolf