The Schriftstellerin’s Stick

Saturday 5th July 2014. Thinking about the event at the Barbican centre the previous evening, I recall something about the interval. Myself and Ms C had ventured off together to use the toilets, and naturally had to split up when we reached them. The event wasn’t particularly female-heavy, yet outside the ladies there was a queue of a least a dozen women. Outside the gents, no queue whatsoever.

Riddled with guilt at this oversight in what is meant to be a modern building, I offered to escort Ms S into the gents to use one of the available cubicles there. She declined, but I like to think that had she agreed none of my fellow males would have protested. At such instances of self-evident inequality, sharing the Gents with women is surely the test of a true Gentleman. And if any of the men did protest, I would have flung my arms to the air and said like any good academic, ‘But sir, all gender is performativity! Go and read your Judith Butler! But wash your hands first.’

In my case, I often feel like a fraud having to declare a gender full stop, purely in order to use the loos. My fear is that once through the door firmly marked Gents, I will be questioned on my knowledge of football, cricket, cars, sharks, beards, and Jeremy Clarkson. And I will be found wanting.

* * *

I spend the afternoon picking up books on literary camp. At Birkbeck Library I find one of Brigid Brophy’s two studies of Aubrey Beardsley, plus Moe Meyer’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, which seems to have been a set text for a Birkbeck course in the past. The giveaway sign for this is seeing a whole batch of duplicate copies on the shelf. Then to Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street, to ask the staff about their own suggestions. I come away with Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, an example of contemporary Polish literary camp.

In Gordon Square I look at a new piece of public art. It’s one of fifty fibreglass ‘book benches’ which have been installed around the city, and which will stay there until the Autumn. They are a project by the National Literacy Trust, called ‘Books About Town’. Each sculpture is the size of a park bench. It is shaped to resemble a book lying open on its side, then painted to illustrate a particular book. Sometimes there is a connection with the location. Gordon Square was once the address of Virginia Woolf, and this particular bench depicts Clarissa and Septimus from Mrs Dalloway. The artist is Fiona Osborne from One Red Shoe, who also painted the Dorian Gray Olympic mascot sculpture in 2012. Her Septimus has a touch of Wildean beauty about him too: the archetype of the doomed boy.

I get into a conversation with a Woolf fan, Alison, who’s come to see the sculpture along with the dozen other benches in Bloomsbury (there’s a map online). She tells me that the bench celebrating Orwell’s 1984 has already been vandalised and is away for repairs, barely a week after it was installed. For a novel that champions acts of rebellion, this rather smacks of irony.

* * *

Monday 7th July 2014. To the Hammersmith Apollo for ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, a comedy benefit. It’s in aid of The People’s Assembly, which organises protests against the current government cuts. The evening has an old-fashioned left-wing activist feel to it, and is hosted by Kate Smurthwaite. She isn’t entirely joking when she kicks off the night with  ‘Let’s have a revolution!’ The acts are all pretty well known in the world of British stand-up: Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Francesca Martinez, Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Jen Brister, Stewart Lee, and Jo Brand. I’m impressed by Jason Manford: I’d always thought of him as more of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road laddish comic. But clearly his heart’s in the right place. Or in this case, the left place.

Stewart Lee opens his set with an excellent topical gag. It riffs on the most common thing people said after Rolf Harris’s conviction, while alluding to today’s rumours of a well-known Tory MP from the 1980s, who’s thought to be connected with various sexual allegations of his own. I’d better redact his name, in case.

‘I do hope [Dreary 80s Tory MP] hasn’t done anything bad. I’d hate to have my childhood memories of [Dreary 80s Tory MP] ruined.’

Mark Steel must be about as old as Jeremy Hardy – indeed I saw them both (and Jo Brand) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988. But where Mr Hardy jokes about the aging process, Mr Steel seems entirely unfettered by time. He has exactly the same manic energy he had in the 80s, running around the stage and spitting out his anti-UKIP rants with barely a pause for breath. I envy him for this, just as I envy him for his red velvet jacket.

On the tube home, I bump into Russell T. He’s just been to some dinner event with none other than Nigel Farage – the very man who was a butt of so many of the jokes at the Apollo. It transpires that Mr F really does like his drink, even when (as tonight) he dashes off to do a late night interview with LBC, several glasses of wine still sloshing away inside him. So all those photos of him holding a pint of beer are not just a pose after all.

* * *

Thursday 10th July 2014. In the afternoon: to the Prince Charles cinema for Bad Neighbours. It’s a broad Hollywood comedy. A thirty-ish couple with a house, proper jobs, and a new baby have their life made hell when a gaggle of noisy students move in next door. There’s some laboured gross-out humour which seems a bit old hat now, and it’s never clear who the film is meant for – former students who are settling down into parenthood, or current students who want that sort of humour now. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a witty enough comedy of manners tucked behind the slapstick. Rose Byrne in particular is superb as the new mother, who finds it hard to deliver the phrase ‘can you keep it down?’ in a way that won’t make her sound like a spoiler of fun. Which is, of course, impossible.

Then by way of contrast to the National Portrait Gallery, for Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. Somewhat fewer slapstick sight gags there. I suppose this represents the person I’ve grown to become – the sort of person who goes to a Virginia Woolf exhibition – and on the day it opens, too (I couldn’t wait). It’s quite busy, with a mix of all ages and genders. There are some shocks. The first exhibit is a large photograph of Woolf’s Tavistock Square flat in ruins, after it was bombed during WW2. In amongst the debris her fireplace can be seen intact, with its Vanessa Bell decorations exposed to the open sky. Then the show works in refreshing Orlando-esque time travel: the fireplace appears again in a Vogue article from the 1920s, then it’s straight back to her childhood, and then forward again into Bloomsbury, via lots of beautiful Hogarth Press first editions. I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of the 13-year-old Virginia, dressed in mourning for her mother.

At the other end of her life there’s the letters she left before her suicide (‘I feel certain I am going mad again…’), along with her walking stick, which she usually took everywhere. This was a message in itself. When Leonard Woolf came home and saw the stick left behind, he knew at once what had happened. Had she survived her depression she would have discovered that she’d escaped another fate too. There’s a copy of a Nazi wartime instruction book, listing the names of over two thousand British politicians and writers who were to be taken into ‘protective custody’ in the event of a German invasion. The book is open at the entry ‘Woolf, Virginia: Schriftstellerin’. Authoress.


Friday 11th July 2014. A journalist from Q magazine emails, asking if I’d like to be interviewed for an article about the ‘lost tribe’ of Romo. I decline politely. One reason is that I have enough trouble recollecting the specifics of the present (hence the diary), let alone those of the distant past. As it is, I spoke to a newspaper for a similar piece a few years ago, and winced at the dismissive agenda which my words were used to endorse (it was the equivalent of ‘Romo: mostly harmless’).

But my chief reason is really this. If I’m going to rake over those particular coals, I’d rather do so for a stand-alone article about Orlando, and not for another huddling of the band under the wider umbrella of Romo. I feel Orlando did good work, and it wasn’t just us who thought so at the time. We won two Singles of the Week in Melody Maker, plus we released an album which received 8 out of 10 from the NME. There’s modesty, and there’s arrogance, but then there’s also being fair to one’s achievements. Why shore up unfair narratives against your own work?

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The Hubristic Booby

A mention of me in Kieron Gillen’s blog, recounting his time manning a stall at the San Diego Comic-Con. He refers to the Phonogram tribute zine for which I wrote a short story:

A particularly broken period happened when we were slumped on the table, talking about the Zine and how much we liked Dickon’s contribution. This turned to how well he rocked a suit. A woman passing the table thinks we’re talking to her. We say we’re actually talking about Dickon, then proceed to explain to this clearly bemused and uncaring woman exactly who Dickon is. As she headed away from the table towards the Top Cow booth, we were shouting facts about Dickon after her (‘HE HAS NICE HAIR!’ ‘HE WAS IN A BAND CALLED ORLANDO!’). This reaches an apex when I inform her ‘I ONCE SAT ON THE SAME SEAT AS HIM’ – pause – ‘AFTER HE HAD STOOD UP’. Because right then, it seemed possible that she would think that I was sitting on the same chair as him whilst he was sitting on it, and wanted to make things perfectly clear.


I was lightly interviewed the other day in The Guardian, as part of an article by Dave Simpson on music scenes, specifically scenes that tried and failed. I was initially wary about contributing, as Mr S had featured Orlando once before in a piece on Bands That Were Hyped But Failed, an unflattering label which one hardly wants to reinforce. He’d also written an entire book about tracking down all the umpteen members of The Fall who were sacked (or forced to quit) by Mark E Smith. So I can’t help thinking of a quote by his cartoon namesake:

Homer: Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. So the lesson is, never try.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a piece about How Dickon Edwards Tried And Failed To Be A Pop Star, The Hubristic Booby, Now Let’s All Have A Good Laugh. It was more about the scenes Mr Simpson had selected, of which Romo was one, and could I talk about that. This time I was feeling Happy To Be Of Use, whatever the agenda, and did my utmost over the phone to stress the positive aspects of Romo, along with being realistic and honest about its shortcomings. And especially, on how 1996 really was the wrong time for it: the singer of La Roux is very much a glorious Romo child of Tilda Swinton in my eyes. May she pout long and prosper.

Most of all, I tried not to sound like those aging ex-band members who speak as if they were going through some silly little phase, stressing that they’re all right now, they’ve grown a beard and got a proper job and, yes, aren’t bands stupid. Those who feel it’s far better to point and sneer and feel superior and no longer be creative.

Matt Everitt, once the drummer from Menswear, is a BBC 6 Music news reporter these days. His biography on the station’s website mentions Menswear as ‘a third division Britpop band of no fixed ability – which paid the bills until a chronic lack of ability caught up with them.’

This gets me so annoyed. Why editorialise? Why not just mention the band, and leave the judgement side to others? Menswear had fans. They even had fanzines. Whatever the received opinion is these days, and I admit they were hardly the most innovative group around, they did inspire passion, devotion, love, and they sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire. That’s an achievement, not a silly youthful phase to play down for the rest of one’s ever-greying life, just so one can feel timidly superior with the try-nothing crowd.

Between creating original primary material (however derivative, forgettable or juvenile) and safely mocking the creativity of others; between trying and sneering at those who try, I’ll always side with the former. God knows there’s so many truly awful bands out there, but I still support them for trying and sticking their heads above the parapet.

Unless they were that band in the adjoining room who were going through ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ over and over again during one particular Fosca rehearsal in Camden a few years ago. They can, well, go to hell.

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