On Camp: Gaga v Perry

Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.

What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.

I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.

(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )

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Sunday 29th December 2013.  End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.

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Monday 30th December 2013.  Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed  when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.

A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.

I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.

The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.

All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.

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Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.

At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.

* * *

Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.

Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.

The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:


I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.

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Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:


Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.

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Dickens, Barnes and The Book As Object

Here’s an article on The Quietus website featuring myself and Tony of Turbonegro. We talked about suits & music. Tony was promoting his gig and I was promoting, well, myself in general. Good to have a chance to show off the Sebastian Horsley suit.

Link to Quietus article. 

Link to S Horsley obituary, with pic of him in the same suit. 


One of the Study Skills workshops I attended in the last fortnight was for Time Management. I was late for it.

A strategy that keeps coming up is to stick to a rigid schedule, putting aside study slots but keeping them to 45 mins at a time. After 45 mins concentration is thought to tail off drastically, and one needs a break. It’s also said that if you do the same thing every day for six weeks, you’ll do it forever. That goes for giving up smoking, giving up sugar in tea, taking up writing, whatever. Actually, six weeks in my skittish, near-addict case sounds too much: I think I form my habits after two.


Tonight was a lecture on Wordsworth and Milton, and how the former used the latter in his Prelude.

Then we had a seminar on The Book As Object. Although I’ve been careful not to pipe up too much in classes up to now, I couldn’t help chipping in on this topic rather more often than usual. I find it such a fascinating subject. I can link the way Dickens’s novels were originally published in cheap monthly paperback instalments, each packaged in green wrappers with a supplement of adverts that had been specially selected to go with the story. For me, that’s comparable to Search Engine Optimisation on the Web today. Victorian SEO.

I also linked the way Voltaire put out his works in varying editions, some with exclusive additions, in order to play the booksellers of 18th century France off against each other – not to make money, but to get his Enlightenment ideas as widespread as possible. This, I suggested, was comparable to the way Terry Pratchett has let Waterstones put out an special edition of his latest novel with an extra short story in the back – not a new marketing idea at all.

Meanwhile Julian Barnes, in his Booker acceptance speech the other day, praised his designer and added:

“If the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

It’s interesting that Mr Barnes thinks the e-book is a ‘challenge’ to the paper book. I think he’s quite wrong. The e-book should be regarded as a third format, alongside the paperback and hardback. There’s a lot ebooks can’t do which paper books can, and vice versa.  Many e-sceptics might not be aware that e-books have given a new lease of life to slow readers, dyslexics and the poorly-sighted, thanks to the way you can enlarge and space out the fonts. However, they’re still at the mercy of battery power, pricey tablet devices, DRM problems, and the sense that an ebook isn’t quite the personal property of the reader in the way a paper book is – you can’t easily get it signed, lend it to a friend, or scribble in the margin.

As Douglas Adams said somewhere, nothing is getting replaced. Things just budge up to make room.

The little Barnes hardback is beautifully designed, but whether it’s worth owning and paying the recommended retail price of £12.99, when the Kindle ebook version is only £3.59, is debatable. And paperbacks can be beautiful objects too (the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ range springs to mind), but the Barnes novel won’t be in paperback until 2012.

That’s another issue.  There is still this ludicrous, elitist idea amongst the British publishing and reviewing scene that a literary novel must come out in hardback first.

If, like Voltaire, you think the main thing is to get your work read by as many people as possible, you need to not only embrace e-books, but join the growing trend to put out a mass-market paperback alongside the hardback (like the rest of the Booker shortlist, in fact). There is no challenge to any format, unless you believe that novels are ‘meant’ to be in hardback form. Which would rule out Dickens and his original, cheap, flimsy, advertising-packaged installments.

Dickens and Voltaire wrote to be read, first and foremost. They’d have welcomed e-books. Why shouldn’t anyone else?

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