Postcards From The Other

Wednesday 3 August 2022. To the Wallace Collection for the exhibition Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts. On the audio guide is a new commentary by Angela Lansbury (I edit this entry after she dies in October, which must make the audio guide one of her last professional credits). There are stills and working drawings from some of the Disney cartoon films, mainly Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Theseare displayed alongside examples of the eighteenth-century Rococo art that inspired them, including some elaborate Sevres vases and a number of paintings from the same period.

The Wallace is home to Fragonard’s The Swing, which is often used to define the meaning of ‘Rococo’ itself. It’s only now that I realise how Disney-esque the painting is, avant la lettre: the privileged girl’s playful abandon, the sugary colours, the sense of timeless delight. Much parodied, there was a spoof cartoon in the Times during the first Covid lockdown, with the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak on the swing, throwing pink pound notes into the air in place of the pink dress. In this exhibition there’s a video screen showing a clip from Frozen, where the sister Anna jumps up in front of the painting to mimic the pose. Next to the screen is the actual painting. While Walter Benjamin might be right about a work of art losing its ‘aura’ in an age of mass reproduction, seeing the Frozen spoof on a screen alongside the actual painting has its own thrill, if a postmodern one. But then, I’m the sort of person who buys National Gallery Covid face masks.

**

Thursday 4 August 2022. With Shanthi to Café Kick in Exmouth Market, followed by drinks in the Shakespeare’s Head, before ending up performing tipsy karaoke at a private booth in Lucky Voice, Upper Street. It’s my first time, I think, since doing karaoke in a proper Tokyo hotel room-style venue, a la Lost in Translation. This was a post-gig activity by the band Spearmint, with whom I played circa 1999 and 2000. I rather like the boast of saying one only does karaoke when in Japan.

It’s too hot for a jacket, so I’m wearing purple braces over a white shirt. David B says this makes me look like a packet of Silk Cut.

**

Sunday 7 August 2022. A recurring conversation in the media is the value of arts degrees, as opposed to studying science or business. By value, they mean the ability for arts graduates to earn large sums of money. The value of nothing and the price of everything, as someone who worked in the arts once said.

In my case, I’m certainly getting used to receiving rejection emails with the phrase: ‘due to the high volume of applications’. That really makes one feel special. It feels like there’s too many people with arts PhDs applying for too few vacancies. I believe it’s called the ‘postdocalypse’.

I’m grateful, though, that I haven’t yet been forced by the government into taking an unlovely job against my will. It’s true that one of the downsides of getting older is that the world is more likely to ignore you. But in some respects, that is one of the benefits.

**

Tuesday 9 August 2022. The Wire magazine asks me to review a book about C86, the cassette compilation of new bands put out by the NME in 1986. ‘C86’ soon came to mean a whole genre: jangly, tinny guitars, rendered in a scratchy indie rock style. On the cassette this was exemplified by bands like the Wedding Present and the Bodines. The problem with the term was that many of the other bands on the C86 tape didn’t sound that way at all. They were more arty, avant-garde and strange, more like Captain Beefheart than Orange Juice or The Smiths.

I learn from the new book that one of these artier bands, The Shrubs, was fronted by Nick Hobbs, with whom I once shared a Japanese hotel room. He managed Spearmint when I played with them, and was once impressed with me not for playing guitar but for recognising a photo on a restaurant wall of Derek Jarman’s Dungeness cottage. The implication was: what was I doing playing melodic indie pop guitar (and not very well) when I knew about Difficult Art?

This was long before Jarman became the brand he is today. Even normal people like Derek Jarman now. He’s become like Southwold, Stewart Lee, and Brutalism.

Also learned from the book: a former tambourine player with Primal Scream calls Bobby Gillespie’s autobiography a work of fiction, made to make the singer look good.

I think that’s the case with all autobiography, this diary included. There is vanity in every creative act, even when indulging in self-pity. Consciously or unconsciously, all memoirs are full of fiction, just as all novels are full of memory.

The author of the C86 book, Nige Tassell, has also written a whole book about the football transfer window, whatever that is.

**

Sunday 21 August 2022. I give a paper at an Aubrey Beardsley conference, ‘AB 150’, at St Bride’s Foundation, off Fleet Street. I enjoy the day, with the nice Beardsley aficionados, one of whom links Beardsley’s pierrot characters to costumes used by David Bowie and Harry Styles, another of whom references the film Suspiria.  I reference Donald Trump, Brigid Brophy, and the film Carry on Loving.  We go for drinks at the Punch Tavern, and I end up joining the Oscar Wilde Society afterwards.

**

Thursday 25 August 2022. To the Waiting Room venue, in the basement of the Three Crowns pub, Stoke Newington. I’m here to see Charley Stone play with her own band, which she calls The Actual Band. Also on the bill are Panic Pocket: very good, intriguing and original. I chat to old friends, some not seen for years: Anna Spivack, Debbie Smith and Atalanta K, Tim Baxendale, David Barnett. I share the tube journey home with Debbie and Atalanta, who mention the documentary film that they’re both in, Rebel Dykes,about the 1980s lesbian subcultures in London.

**

Friday 26 August 2022. Treated to a kind lunch at Le Sacre Coeur in Islington, by Roz Kaveney, who knows I don’t have much money at the moment. By a coincidence Roz is also in Rebel Dykes, proving that lesbian clubs of the 80s accepted trans women too. I watch the documentary itself in the evening, via the Channel 4 streaming platform. It’s exactly the sort of alternative, subcultural film that Channel 4 used to stand for, before the era of Big Brother made it into just another mainstream channel. 

Rebel Dykes depicts the busy London squat scene of the 80s, before the law was changed to make squatting illegal. This was when London, like Channel 4, was a place for the displaced. Given the current cost of living crisis, I wonder if the law will have to change again, and a new age of squatting begin.

**

Sunday 28 Aug 2022. To a mini festival in Spa Fields off Exmouth Market. There’s stalls selling food and clothes and so on, and some rock bands playing on a small stage. I’m made aware of just how visibly middle-aged the audience is, perhaps because I’ve not been to a daylight gig for a while. But then, so many of the practitioners of the genre are greying too: Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury this year at the age of 80. Rock music now feels more claimed by the older than the young. 

The C86 book, which I’m clearly not finished with, reveals that even some of the fairly obscure indie groups of the 1980s have recently reformed, the members now in their late 50s or older. This is often because there’s a proliferation of small festivals who want to book them, particularly abroad. The phrase ‘has been’ is now itself a kind of has-been. If fame just means attracting an audience, even a small one, you can stay famous forever. Or at least, for as long as YouTube exists.

After the festival I go for drinks at the very pleasant Victorian pub The Peasant, in St John Street, with Travis Elborough, Alex Mayor, and Dave Callahan, who is in the C86 book, being a member of the Wolfhounds. We are thrown out of the pub at 9pm, not because we are rowdy but because it’s a Sunday.

**

Saturday 3 September 2022. Getting older myself. I spend my 51st birthday in Bexhill on Sea, having lunch in the De La Warr Pavilion, one of those places I’ve always meant to visit. I haven’t been abroad since 2009, partly due to lack of money but also because there’s a lot of places in the UK I’ve still not ticked off.

Then afternoon tea at the wonderfully crumbling Royal Victoria hotel in St Leonards-on-Sea with Kitty Fedorec. This is close to the Marine Court Art Deco apartment block, one of my dream places to live if I had the choice, the other being the Barbican. This is followed by a game of mini golf in Hastings with her Kitty’s friends. After which we go for cheese bingo in a nearby pub, which turns out not to be a joke. I’m surrounded by wry geeks and bohemians in their 30s and 40s, one of whom is carrying a bag of vinyl albums, including Edward Woodward Sings.

**

Thursday 8 Sept 2022. The Queen dies at 96. I was convinced she would beat her mother’s age of 101, given the progress of medicine. But then, unlike her mother she did have rather more to do than drink gin and watch racehorses. 

I go to the Shakespeare’s Head with David Barnett and try HMQ’s reputed tipple: Dubonnet and gin. Two parts Dubonnet to 1 part gin, with a slice of lemon plus ice.HMQ, who was not much of a drinker, inherited this choice from her mother, who was. Quite a 1920s drink, in fact, also associated with Noel Coward, and a reminder that the Queen Mother was of the Bright Young Things generation. The drink itself is not unlike absinthe. Unexpectedly strong, which seems apt. I don’t have more than one.

**

Saturday 10 September 2022. Trying to get used to having a new King, without thinking of spaniels. The Prince Charles Cinema in Soho has affixed a notice to its door: ‘No, we are not changing our name.’

**

Monday 12 September 2022. To the Barbican for The Forgiven, an Evelyn Waugh-esque melodrama about decadent white people in Morocco. I’m slightly shocked to see that film has an 18 certificate, not for violence or gore or sex but for scenes of drug use, namely cocaine. There’s some footage of Tangier early on. I think I recognise the El Minzah hotel, where there might still be a photo above the bar of me and Shane MacGowan. 

**

Wednesday 21 Sept 2022. I read the comic memoir Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Kobabe is a young American cartoonist who mentions the music of David Bowie as part of their path to coming out as non-binary. Their other cultural references include Harry Styles. Harry Styles is not David Bowie, but there certainly seems to be a gap in the current world of role models for a Bowie-esque figure, a pretty male who can combine mainstream pop music with acting and fashion and being just unmanly enough – but too strange that he can’t appear on the cover of Grazia. Mr Styles has done his best to take up that position.

Tonight I see the big new Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, with Shanthi and Rob, bumping into Erol Alkan in the lobby beforehand.

Moonage Daydream recycles a fair amount of footage I’ve seen before, from Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor to the Mavis Nicholson interview. Easily found on the internet, but it’s nice to see these ancient clips cleaned up and stretched across the giant IMAX screen. Mavis Nicholson died recently, the same day as the other queen. She specialised in getting the best out of unusual men: Quentin Crisp, Kenneth Williams, Tom Baker. If I had my way, the IMAX would show a whole season of her interviews. The venue would be renamed IMAVE.

After the film Shanthi takes my photo in the IMAX Exit 1 subway, where someone has scrawled on the wall ‘PANSY MOB’.

**

Friday 23 September 2022. Still on a Bowie tip, I find myself going down a Bowie / camp research rabbit-hole. In the film there’s footage of Bowie fans in the early 70s, queuing up outside one of his concerts. They chat to the camera about Bowie, saying ‘he’s so camp’, and it’s meant in a positive, even hip sense.

I find the 1972 Melody Maker Bowie interview, the one where he says he’s gay. In the article the journalist, Michael Watts, calls Bowie’s presentation ‘camp as a row of tents’. In 2006 Watts wrote about his memories of doing the interview, and wondered if he actually invented the phrase ‘camp as a row of tents’. It would be nice to think so, but I can’t resist doing the research to find out. This is what prevents me from being a regular journalist, on top of my slowness. I can’t make some sweeping claim and let it stand with no citations, no evidence.

According to Gary Simes’s exhaustive article ‘Gay Slang Lexicography’ (2005), ‘camp as a row of tents’ is at least as old as 1948, and may be Australian in its origins. Barry Humphries was using ‘camp as a row of tents’ in the 1960s, which I can believe, while the Times used the phrase in 1968, to describe the TV series The Avengers.

‘Camp’ also appears in another significant piece of Bowie journalism: Ray Coleman’s concert review for Melody Maker, 15 July 1972. There, Bowie is called ‘the undisputed king of camp rock’, combining the Velvet Underground with ‘a Danny La Rue profile’.

I wonder if young people who now look to Bowie as they look to Harry Styles would get both these references. Perhaps Todd Haynes should follow up his documentary on the Velvet Underground with one on Danny La Rue.

**

28 September 2022. So hypersensitive to language that I take against emails beginning with ‘Hi’ rather than ‘Dear’. ‘Hi’ is shrill, mercenary: a salesman who doesn’t care who you are. ‘Dear’ is an oasis of gentle.

**

30 September 2022. The last time I bought a packet of cigarettes it would have been Sobranie Cocktails. I’m delighted to be told by Kate Levey, Brigid Brophy’s daughter, that Brophy smoked them in her nursing home.

**

10 October 2022. What keeps me alive right now is my taste. One current passion is books and bookshops and indeed books about books and bookshops. I’ve read at least three such books from the latter category this year: Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of The; Robin Ince’s Bibliomaniac,and Emma Smith’s Portable Magic. I’m also more fascinated than ever with elegance in English prose. Recently I watched a documentary about the history of the BBC and found myself drawn to a description of Winston Churchill’s manner of speaking as ‘Gibbons-esque’.

The well-honed phrase is usually best put to service in a song lyric or in a immersive narrative, style being nothing without content. But not always. Truman Capote said of Firbank that ‘all he had was style, bless him’. Sometimes it can be more than enough to just enjoy the performance of another mind.

**

Saturday 15 October 2022. Current projects: an academic chapter on Angela Carter for Bloomsbury Books, plus a novel set among studenty dandy types. I’m trying to put the camp in ‘campus novel’. One character is based on Sebastian Horsley, which seems like such an obvious thing to do. I think of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford preserving their own dandyish friends in their fiction.

**

17 October 2022. Lots of coughing about. Mum in Suffolk is now poorly with Covid for the first time, having avoided it entirely until now. Two and a half years on, though, and with the vaccines well established, one’s anxiety over the virus is a lot less acute. [Indeed, Mum goes on to recover more quickly than I did]. People are now much more worried about the cost of living, climate change, and Russia.

**

18 October 2022. I decide to get my thesis bound, choosing the style of Firbank’s first editions. Black cloth hardback, gold lettering. A reminder to myself of what I can do, and what I’ve managed to do, and that for better or worse I’m now a creature of books.

**

20 October 2022. Liz Truss follows several months of campaigning to be prime minister with barely a month in the actual job. The political news in the UK is getting so ridiculous that I feel like having a one-person riot. It will not last long but it will be very well dressed.

**

24 October 2022. I think I’ve just about got the hang of the author-date reference system now. This is from the Angela Carter article. I don’t trust referencing software, preferring to bring as much manual labour to the task as possible. It’s probably another way that I’m too slow to do this for a living, but I’m pleased with the results.

**

28 October 2022. I admire professional writers who take their time, or at least are allowed to take their time. Alan Hollinghurst taking six years to write a new book, Donna Tartt taking ten. But I also admire writers who produce regularly but who manage to do so without using a computer. At Housman’s bookshop in Kings Cross I treat myself to Ronald Blythe’s new book Next to Nature. This is a collection of his weekly Word from Wormingford column for the Church Times, which ran from the 1990s up till his retirement in 2017 aged 95. The religious content, which I’m not so interested in, is offset with Blythe’s reflections on nature, literature, and history, which I am interested in. I’m fascinated with the circumstances behind the writing: Blythe living alone since the 1970s in a lone house up a long track in the Stour Valley countryside, yet never learning to drive. He typed up his books and journalism on a typewriter and sent the copy off by post, and kept doing so into the 2010s. With writers these days churning out words like the wind, I find a sense of slowness, of polish and pause, all the more precious.

**

Saturday 5 November 2022. The computers at Birkbeck Library respond to a user logging into the system with a pop-up message of confirmation. For ten years, I used to see: ‘Dickon Edwards: Student’. Now that I’ve moved on to be an Associate Research Fellow, which is a form of unpaid affiliation, the system labels me as ‘Dickon Edwards: Other’. I read far too much into this official designation of otherness.

Going through old clutter, I find an out of date CV. Under ‘Other Work’ there is a long list. I suppose this is part of my problem. I have done too much Other Work, and not enough Normal Work. The list includes the following.

  • Custodian, Kenwood House (English Heritage), 1998 to 2000. Essentially a glorified security guard, standing around in beautiful rooms full of beautiful paintings and furniture. I had to ensure visitors didn’t damage or steal anything, but I was also required to give information about the art. It meant for a crash course in Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Gainsborough, which I loved.
  • Shop assistant, Archway Video DVD & VHS library, Archway Road, 2004 to 2007. I actually rebuilt the shop’s website myself, using the program Dreamweaver. Free access to films, which was bliss. And the shop was 5 minutes’ walk from my bedsit in Southwood Avenue.
  • Guest columnist for Green Wedge, political website. One-off.
  • Blogger for Latitude Festival.
  • Gig reviewer for Drowned in Sound.
  • Concert guitarist with the band Spearmint. 1999-2000. Toured the UK, Sweden and Japan. Amicably sacked for inability.
  • Concert guitarist with Scarlet’s Well. 2004. Amicably sacked for inability after 1 gig, which suggests my guitar skills declined even further after Spearmint. Today I don’t own a guitar at all, having taken the hint.    
  • DJ at club nights ‘The Beautiful and Damned’, at the Boogaloo, Highgate, and at my own night in Camden, ‘Against Nature’. Also DJ’d at the British Library, Latitude Festival, Last Tuesday Society, Curious Invitation, White Mischief, How Does It Feel to be Loved, and other club nights. Have since thrown out my DJ CDRs along with my guitar.
  • Model for the cover of the academic book Materializing Queer Desire by Elisa Glick.
  • Extra in the films Shaun of the Dead (zombie in shirt and tie), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (party guest in suit and tie), and Gambit (restaurant diner in suit and tie).
  • Life model at art classes – somewhere near Holloway Women’s Prison.
  • Personal assistant, or ‘New Romantic Butler’ as one of his friends put it, to the musician Shane MacGowan, mainly for two one-off trips to Tangier, and one to New York.
  • Standing for election to Haringey Council, Highgate ward, as a Green Party candidate (May 2006). Wore heavy make-up.
  • Invited as guest of honour for an exhibition on menswear at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands. Lent one of my suits to go on display, as an example of a modern dandy.
  • Invited to be sole UK performer at the 2008 Stockholm International Poetry Festival.

And these are just the things I haven’t put on my current CV.

The world of CVs expects all people to choose one thing – a ‘career’ – aged 18, and to stick to that to the grave. I’ve never been like that. I now have a BA (1st class), MA (distinction), and a PhD, and four academic prizes, on top of my varied list of experiences. And still the job market views me as, well, too ‘Other’.

I don’t know really what to do. Except to carry on looking and applying, and to carry on writing.

 **

Thursday 10 November 2022. To the Vue cinema near Angel for Bros, an American mainstream romcom about gay men. There’s a reference in the film to You’ve Got Mail, but the main character is no Meg Ryan. He doesn’t stop being neurotic long enough for the audience to care about him. His love interest, the Tom Hanks figure I suppose, is physically handsome but utterly dull. But both actors play well enough, and the ‘com’ is certainly all there, if not the ‘rom’. There’s plenty of one-liners, and I find myself laughing aloud. But it’s one of those films where I come away wondering what could have been improved.

**

Saturday 12 November 2022. Wearing a linen suit due to the unseasonal warmth. If the world is ending, one might as well look one’s best for it.

Looking for a seat on a train today, I walk past a young couple. She bursts into a manic giggle. He says, ‘What da f— was that?’ Still got it.

Saturday 19 November 2022. One of the most quoted lines from Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ is:

‘It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical.’

There have been many refutations of this claim ever since, often indicating the many political and subversive uses of camp, from drag queens at the Stonewall riots, to Donald Trump’s use of the Village People song ‘YMCA’ at his rallies. Sontag herself changed her mind on this position in a 1975 interview. Her own example of political camp was Mae West, arguing that she used camp as a form of feminism.

Today I watch Joe Lycett’s new stand-up show on video. He manages to blend mischief, pranks, and camp smut with a very contemporary form of social activism. His style of camp speaking is old-fashioned in the mode of Kenneth Williams, yet his material is closer to that of Michael Moore. Although Michael Moore is unlikely to refer to Lisa Scott-Lee from Steps.

If you need proof that camp can be political, Joe Lycett is it.

**
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Inelegant Acronyms

Thursday 28 September 2017. I must record that on the 20th July I contributed to a pop record. At least, I recorded some backing vocals for Tim Benton, he of the band Baxendale, in a Hornsey studio under a railway bridge. The song was called ‘Wild Swimming’. Mr B invited me to do it out of the blue, and I said yes.

It’s my first contribution to music since I stopped Fosca in 2009. I still have no interest in making new music myself just yet. How funny the way one’s passions wax and wane. Still, one silver lining of my failing to make money from music is that there’s no temptation to play my old songs in concert purely for the money.

My other excuse is a refusal of that common alibi: ‘being in bands was a phase I was going through: I’m more normal now’. I feel I’m more weird now. For now, other boxes await: book-shaped projects, experiments with language, ideas, narrative, the art of words. I look to my award from Birkbeck in 2015, for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’, and feel I owe it to myself to do something along those lines.

**

On a whim, I watch the late 70s Doctor Who serial The Invisible Enemy, with Tom Baker, as rented from iTunes. It’s the one that introduces K9, the robot dog who resembles an upturned wash basin on remote-controlled wheels; very slow wheels at that. And yet the TV-watching children of Britain loved him, and he became a regular character. All the special effects are shockingly primitive, needless to say. Yet there’s a certain cheapskate charm which makes the programme uniquely attractive now, in these glossy days of production values.

I wonder if it’s to do with the dressing-up box aspect: that instinctive need in childhood to tell a quick-moving story using whatever materials are to hand. In the case of The Invisible Enemy, even the story is cheap: a simple fusion of sci-fi cliches. It’s like a small child retelling a film using plastic figures. But there is one unique element: Tom Baker. He was already in a world of his own when he was propping up the bars of 70s Soho. It made perfect sense to cast him as a benign alien; someone who takes on his enemies armed with nothing but nerve.

I think I may have even been introduced to the word ‘bohemian’ in a Target Books description of Baker as the Doctor – I certainly had no interest in the Queen song. Like ‘camp’, I was too young to understand what ‘bohemian’ meant. Though I suspected it sort of meant an adult acting like a child – in a good way.

**

Friday 29 September 2017.  I read Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by the US writer Sarah Manguso. A curious short memoir, fragmentary and poetic. It concerns her keeping a diary over decades, from 1990 till today. Yet she does not quote a word of the actual diary.

From Manguso: ‘I use my landlady’s piano as a writing desk (p. 60)’. I’m starting to look particularly kindly on forty-something writers who live in rented accommodation.

**

Saturday 30 September 2017. I’ve always had clumsy and weak hands, something which has led to a lifelong resentment of cricketers. In recent years though my hands have become oddly worse for short amounts of time. A visit to a glamorous NHS neurologist a couple of years ago ruled out anything sinister. Glamorous, because I later found out that she was a consultant on the big film about Stephen Hawking. I was impressed with this implied proximity to Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, even though I would probably drop it.

No, my condition seems to be a mild but irritating combination of anxiety and dyspraxia, one that makes me into a kind of camp Incredible Hulk. At times of extreme stress, I become more limp-wristed.

I suppose I could blame this condition for my uselessness at DIY jobs. When I moved into the new room I bought a self-assembly bedside table for £15, from the Dalston branch of Argos. I felt right at home there, among the crazy, the shouting, the desperate, and the cheap.

Naturally, when I got the table home it did not lend itself to being assembled at all. And despite my careful scrutiny of the Cy Twombly-like hieroglyphics which the makers had the temerity to call instructions, I managed to nail one of the panels on upside down. The world of manual labour and I continue to look upon each other with mutual suspicion.

**

Sunday 1st October 2017. I’m writing a review of The Sparsholt Affair for the Birkbeck university website. It’s a commission by Joe Brooker for Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature (www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk). I discovered that a couple of the images in the novel are taken from real-life photographs or album sleeves, making my review something of a scoop. It’s my first piece of published academic writing.

**

Monday 2nd October 2017. More work on the Hollinghurst review. I also look over the handbook for the PhD course. I’ve found that whenever I mention I’m doing a PhD, some people have made little noises of mild awe. Indeed, when I did well at my BA a friend said: ‘I should think so too: BAs are for children.’ So I had to do an MA for that reason alone. Halfway through that I found myself increasingly curious about a PhD. If only because PhDs get more privileges in academia: special PC rooms, extra access at college libraries, and the sense of being, well, more grown up. Which for me is truly rare. I wonder how I’ll do.

**

Tuesday 3rd October 2017. I meet Laurence Hughes in the top floor bar of Waterstones Piccadilly. The windowed area has spectacular views of the London skyline, but it also has piped music. Laurence, who is older than me, is more sensitive about piped music. So we plump for the area away from the windows, losing the view but gaining freedom from the music.

I did a little research about this sort of thing for my MA. There’s some sociological evidence that the intolerance of piped music in public spaces increases with age. This is despite the way one’s hearing itself starts to decline – frequencies go missing, hearing aids beckon. One theory is that older people resent the loss of control over public space, which the piped music represents. It’s a glimmer of mortality: you are not in charge of this world after all, chum.

In cafes, the music may be designed to soothe customers, but it’s also designed to possess and impose the brand on a room, and so reminds the customers that they are at the company’s mercy. Younger people tend to mind this sort of thing a lot less, even if it’s other people’s music. The young are more keen to lap up brands, trends, fashionable haircuts, and of course, ideologies.

Perhaps as evidence of my aversion to trendy things, I get the new Ronald Blythe collection of Church Times columns, Forever Wormingford. It’s his last one: he’s retired from doing the weekly column at the age of 94. Calming prose, beautiful little mini-essays on Suffolk life, worthy of a much wider audience than the readers of a Christian newspaper. As in Akenfield, Blythe’s style favours the sudden comparing of moments across decades, or even centuries, presenting life as a palimpsest on all the lives that came and went before. The similarities are always more startling than the differences.

***

Thursday 5th October 2017. My PhD officially begins. Tonight at Gordon Square there’s an induction talk in the Keynes Library by Sue Wiseman, the course director. A handout with a list of all the new students and their projects goes around, and I’m slightly startled to see my name at the top. It’s alphabetical, and unusually for a diverse ‘cohort’ of twenty students, no one has a surname beginning with A, B, C, or D. So there I am at the start. Meaningless, really, but at this stage, with the fear creeping in about how serious it all is, and with my constant inner questions about whether I’ve made a good decision, I’ll take any good omen I can get.

This year’s English and Humanities intake seems a healthy mix: roughly equal genders, all ages, lots of different nationalities, and a good scattering of subject matter from medieval to contemporary, via steampunk, cyberpunk, and graphic novels. One student is doing fairy tales with Marina Warner: the best possible supervisor in the country for that topic. I chat to one student who is also an accomplished poet, Fran Lock.

**

Friday 6th October 2017. Today sees an induction lecture for the wider School of Arts students, as in not just my fellow English and Humanities researchers, but also their counterparts in History of Art, Film and Media, Languages, and The Arts more generally. The lecture is by Marina Warner, and is on curses and entreaties in storytelling.

Beforehand, I’m in St James’s Park looking at some sculptures by Sophie Ryder, which all seem very Marina Warner-esque: nude humans with animal heads dancing with giant dogs, or holding hands in a ring, like an out-take from The Wicker Man.

Spend some time – probably too much – reading about the current online goings on among the ‘alt-right’. Buzzfeed have published a long investigation into email exchanges by various journalists from the conservative website Breitbart, linking them with what appears to be actual white supremacists. The figure at the heart of the story is Milo Yiannopoulos, the British writer who saw a gap in the market left by Christopher Hitchens: a charismatic posh British man spouting opinions on American media despite a complete lack of qualifications. Except that Hitchens was at least more considered in his style: Milo Y is more like a camp internet troll, and one who has stolen my look, frankly.

**

Saturday 7th October 2017. To the Museum of London for a gig by The Fallen Women. It’s part of some sort of mini-festival themed around radical art. Like Joanne Joanne, the all-female tribute band who play Duran Duran songs, the Fallen Women are a mostly female band who play the songs of The Fall: ‘Hit the North’, ‘Victoria’, ‘Mr Pharmacist’, ‘Big New Prinz’ and so forth.

During the gig, three energetic little girls dance unexpectedly down the front. They can’t be older than eight. I presume they’re the untethered children of someone else here, though I like to think they just escaped and are on the run. They are invited onto the stage to do guest vocals on ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. Afterwards, while the band pack up, they ask the guitarist – my friend Charley Stone – if they can use the microphones. Charley points out that they’ve been switched off, because the DJ, Mr Doran from The Quietus, is now playing his set.

‘That doesn’t matter’, says one of the little girls. ‘We just want to show off our girl group moves’. And so they do, posing and dancing with the microphones.

**

Sunday 8th October 2017. I am sent a copy of Travis Elborough’s handsome new anthology, Our History of the 20th Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters. Once again, it includes extracts from my web diary, though just ones from 1997 to 2000. Much of the rest of the book is exclusive material: private diaries never before published. Mr E had asked me if I had kept a paper diary before 1997. I hadn’t, sadly: the novelty of the web format was one of the reasons I started.

At 9am I go to the V&A for Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. After the huge success of the David Bowie exhibition, the V&A have attempted something similar with the band behind Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The show has proven so popular that the museum has added tickets by opening throughout the night too: I could have gone at 4am in the morning.

So what does that say about Pink Floyd? I thought the band had rather more of a niche following than Bowie. In fact, a statistic I learn at the exhibition is that Dark Side alone sells 7000 copies every week, worldwide.

All kinds of theories suggest themselves. I wonder if it’s the band’s reputation for anonymity. Music usually divides people, so a lack of personality might mean there’s less to get in the way, and so less to dislike (one might say the same about Coldplay). Certainly Dark Side of the Moon was all about the ambience promised by the enigmatic sleeve, the triangular prism against the black background. Then there are the subjects of the song titles, which are so basic they must translate easily around the world: ‘Breathe’, ‘Time’, ‘Money’. Hardly niche topics. ‘Hey, I breathe too! I too have heard about money!’

What interests me, and what justifies this exhibition, is that they went through so many different phases, all of which involved highly visual and theatrical elements. One highlight is the row of face masks used in The Wall live show, as worn by a ‘surrogate band’ of extra musicians who open the concert. The idea played on the pitfalls of their own success: the concerts were now such a special-effects spectacle, with exploding jet planes, flying inflatable pigs, film projections, and huge grotesque puppets by Gerald Scarfe, the actual band members were secondary concerns. The mask idea is now rich in irony, given that the bassist Roger Waters, who was the band’s driving force in the 70s, tried to stop the other members using the name ‘Pink Floyd’ without him. He was proved wrong. Or rather, he didn’t listen to his own ideas.

They had one member with star quality, though: Syd Barrett. The band’s first incarnation, the late 1960s line-up with Barrett as frontman, was part of the London psychedelic club scene. Here, the V&A shows many of the gig posters of the time. These illustrated adverts have figures with swirling, distorted proportions rendered in a clear line style, not at all unlike the 1890s work of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it’s thought that the V&A’s 1966 Beardsley show directly influenced such art, and indeed there’s a Beardsley on display. This gives the new exhibition a nice sense of symmetry: echoes of influence returning home.

I take a bus into Piccadilly and get off at St James’s church. In the church grounds is an exhibition of sculptures by Emily Young, once the inspiration for the 60s Pink Floyd song ‘See Emily Play’. Here, one can.

**

Monday 9th October 2017. To the University of Surrey, in Guildford, for a symposium, New Perspectives on Alan Hollinghurst. Three papers are delivered, each speaker neatly representing one of the three academic books on Hollinghurst, all of which suddenly emerged, like buses, in the last few years. This is followed by a public interview with the author himself, tirelessly promoting The Sparsholt Affair. The interview is also in the university, but as part of the Guildford Literary Festival. Unusually, AH doesn’t mention Firbank, so I perk up at the end, mention my PhD, and get him to confirm that he’s writing the introduction for a new Picador edition of The Flower Beneath The Foot. The Sparsholt Affair makes the Top 10 bestseller list: there’s huge posters for it on the Tube.

Surrey university is a proper campus in the American sense: a self-contained town of glossy modernist buildings that takes a long bus ride to get around. I forget how many universities are like this, physically separate and bubble-like, rather than smuggled across a city in public squares and streets like my own, the University of London.

**

Tuesday 10th October 2017. To the Members’ Room in the London Library for an event concerning the second Travis Elborough book out this month, this one co-edited with Helen Gordon, Being A Writer. No one can say that Mr E is a slouch at the practice himself.

It’s a collection of quotes by notable authors: writerly anecdotes mixed with general advice on the craft, and all beautifully designed by the publisher, Frances Lincoln. There’s a quote by David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas one) that reminds me how expensive writing used to be before the net: the era of typewriters and Tippex, of old printers with holes down the side of the paper (which was striped with green for some reason), of bulky manuscripts photocopied and sent in the post. Today it’s harder to earn money from writing, but at least it’s cheaper to actually write.

**

Wednesday 11th October 2017. Evening: to Gordon Square for a meeting by a ‘collective’ of Birkbeck research students. One of the PhDs talks about how she transferred to Birkbeck halfway through her thesis, after her relationship with a supervisor broke down irrevocably. There were no other supervisors in the same field, so she had to move colleges altogether. It’s a good lesson in the importance of having the right supervisor, however good the reputation of the college.

Anyone who looks into doing a PhD usually hears a few horror stories on this subject: supervisors who forget their students even exist; supervisors who don’t reply to emails for months on end and need to be hunted down in the politest possible way; and neglected students who shrug and think they can submit their PhD without the supervisor’s input (and they usually come a cropper). One advantage of sticking with the same college for ‘the triple’ – BA, MA, PhD – is that my supervisor already knows what I’m like.

There’s a London diarist connection here. The definitive edition of Samuel Pepys’s diaries was edited by William Matthews (1905-1975), a specialist in British and American diaries. Matthews did ‘the triple’ at Birkbeck in the 1920s and 30s, before going on to a glittering academic career in the States, hoovering up awards as he went. Birkbeck’s English department honour his memory every year with the annual William Matthews lecture. So I like to think I’m ‘doing a William Matthews’, if only the first bit.

**

Sunday 15th October 2017. To the ‘Esquire Townhouse with Dior’ as it’s officially called. It’s both a pop-up members club and an arts festival, held at the plush building at 10 & 11 Carlton House Terrace, right behind the ICA. I’m here for yet another Alan Hollinghurst event, this time about the ten books that made him who he is. He omits Firbank in favour of, unexpectedly, The Lord of the Rings, which he loved as a teenager. It seems unlikely that AH will venture into writing fantasy novels any time soon. Then again, Kazuo Ishiguro’s last book, The Buried Giant, was just that, and they’ve just given him the Nobel Prize.

I say hello to Martin Wallace, who knows AH. The author himself recognises me from the Guildford talk, and asks me about the scope of my Firbank thesis. When I tell him it’s about the concept of camp modernism, he thinks for a moment then tells me it’s a very worthwhile line of research. I feel officially blessed.

**

Tuesday 17th October 2017. The London Review of Books has an excellent article by Jenny Turner on Kathy Acker, by way of the new biography by Chris Kraus. Ms Acker marketed the ink on her skin as much as she did the ink on her pages. It’s quite a common look now, but her tattoos and piercings were thought to be fairly daring and punkish in the 80s and 90s, even shocking.

As Ms Turner points out, there hadn’t really been a female version of the William Burroughs-style ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’ role before, and there hasn’t really been one since. Jeanette Winterson may have been spiky in her manner when she started out, but she was still part of the literary establishment; one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. According to this article, one of Acker’s books was accidentally printed with the last two chapters the wrong way around, and no one noticed. That’s one definition of the avant-garde.

I note that there’s an advert alongside the Acker piece for Stewart Lee’s current stand-up comedy show. It’s difficult to think of other comedians who might regard the LRB readership as their target audience. And yet I’m reminded that in 1981, when the LRB had photographic covers and a slightly more ‘Time Out’-y approach, they put Alexei Sayle on the front. This was to illustrate an article by the poet Ian Hamilton on the alternative comedy scene.

Since then the magazine hasn’t expected its readers to take much of an interest in comedy. I know this because in 2011, one LRB piece quoted a joke from Peep Show, but had to qualify this as ‘a Channel 4 sitcom’, rather than ‘the Channel 4 sitcom’. By this time it had been running for eight years, and was on its seventh series. Perhaps, given the Stewart Lee advert, things have changed. Or perhaps, in the same way Kathy Acker is described as an author who had fans ‘among people who didn’t usually buy books’, Lee is a comedian for people who don’t usually like comedy.

I admit I’ve always been intrigued by the way magazines second-guess their readers’ tastes, and so have to reach for the words ‘a’ or ‘called’ to qualify something, rather than a more flattering ‘the’. As in, ‘I was listening to a band called the Beatles’ (because you, the imagined reader, won’t have heard of them). Or ‘I was watching a film called Citizen Kane’. The practice is even more curious now, because it assumes the reader hasn’t got access to Google.

**

Wednesday 18th October 2017. To Birkbeck for a training session on archiving ‘intractable’ objects. I choose Firbankiana, a miniature book published in 1989 by the New York independent press Hanuman, who operated in the 80s and early 90s. The book is part of a quirky series on figures from avant-garde culture. Other subjects include Candy Darling, Burroughs, Richard Hell, and David Hockney. Quite collectable now. In preparing to talk about the Firbank book, I discover that Hanuman operated out of the Chelsea Hotel, and that the books were based on Indian prayer books, hence the idea of carrying about a little book of Burroughs or Firbank by way of demonstrating one’s  faith. Indeed, they hired the same prayer-book printers in Madras, who in turn used the same local fishermen to hand-stitch the pages together (Source: website for the Hanuman archive, University of Michigan Library). I wonder what the fishermen made of Candy Darling.

Thursday 19th October 2017. Library inductions for the new PhDs. We start with a tour of the historic Senate House Library, followed by a lesson on how to use their online catalogue. Then to Birkbeck’s more modern library next door, where we are taught about using the many electronic databases. I come away with my head swimming in inelegant acronyms. Like ‘PhD’, in fact.

Birkbeck Library has just refurbished its upper floor in Torrington Square. Over the summer they removed whole banks of shelving and replaced them with some fifty or so brand new study desks. The shelves are unlikely to be missed, as they contained ancient periodicals and directories. These materials are now in storage, so people can still request them. But one suspects they’re all digitised and available online.

This is very much a sign of the times. In Birkbeck there seems to be more students this year than ever before, despite all the reports of high fees and the difficulties in housing. Last year the free desks in the library ran out completely every day, with the peak time around 4pm. Some clichés about students being late risers never change. Meanwhile the back numbers of academic journals, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and directories have migrated to the electronic ether.

Libraries are now as much about spaces for bodies (and their laptops) as they are about spaces for books. For many students, a library’s key role is as a quiet, conducive and above all heated space in which to work at a laptop, away from the piped music of franchise cafes, and away from the unheatable shoebox that a student probably has to call a home.

But some of the old reference materials still manage to lurk among all the bodies and the backpacks. In Senate House today, while on the tour, I spy the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelves in its thick black hardbacks, all twenty volumes of it. I ask a librarian if anyone still consults these out-of-date tomes. ‘Probably hardly anyone, but we like to keep them there for nostalgia.’

 

***

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In Which I Compare Myself To Imelda Marcos

Saturday 16th August 2014. My reading matter this week includes Samuel Beckett’s short stories from the 1940s, such as ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’. They’re all about lonely layabouts trudging the streets in existential woe. I come away wanting to look at pictures of kittens.

* * *

Currently struggling with two mundane but time-consuming problems: the procurement of new shoes and new glasses. I record these non-experiences in the hope of exorcising their hold on me.

I put off these sort of purchases as long as I can. Partly out of poverty, but also because I know purchases of need rarely satisfy me, compared to purchases of luxury (such as alcohol, cinema tickets or books).

In the cases of the glasses, the nice optician at Boots Muswell Hill tested my sight and told me it had changed slightly. She gave me a new prescription. Then it emerged that (a) they cannot put new lenses into my current frames, and (b) Boots no longer make my current frames.

I tried on the free NHS frames they had, but couldn’t find any I liked. Then I tried some of the priced ones I can just about afford (ie under £100) and settled for a pair I thought were okay. Black rimmed, Boots own brand, a bit big and cartoonish. I was aiming for Vintage Michael Caine, rather than Current Gok Wan. £95, from a half price offer.

But this mundanity expands, sucking up hours. It takes me two visits to decide on this new pair, then a third visit for collecting them after the lenses are in. And then a few days after that, I decide I don’t like the specs so much after all. They feel heavy and clunky and goggle-like. Is it the newness? A resentment of change? Or is it that I just wanted to get out of the opticians as fast as possible, knowing I had to choose something? On top of this, I’m now unconvinced my eyesight has changed – my old pair seem to correct my vison well enough.

I can barely speak for sighing. I stand on a train platform on St Pancras, holding both the old and the new pairs, switching between the two while testing my sight on the train information signs. I must look mad.

* * *

And then, later in the week, I have a similar frustration with new shoes. I try to go for years without buying a new pair. My current everyday black shoes now have holes in the top. Seconds of rain leave both feet drenched. The cobblers in Muswell Hill have told me to throw them out, but I haven’t. I can’t, yet.

I go to Clarks in Oxford Street and spend a good hour trying on sand-coloured shoes to go with my linen suits. One pair seem right: Clarks Classics, suede Jinks, priced £75. Fine, done, happy. Yet a few days later I’m in pain. The suede creases when I walk, cutting into my left foot at the base of my big toe. I’m close to limping.

The Clarks receipt says ‘full refund if unworn’. By this point, I have dragged the shoes through a mile of London grime. I spend hours trying to solve the dilemma with Scholls padded plasters, stuck on the painful areas of my foot. That in turn means time has to be spent at Boots St Pancras, peering at their complex range of foot-based products. I go back to stock up on more when I realise the pads come off in the shower. And so it goes on. Incredibly, the world turns.

I worry that I’ll never find a single pair of comfortable yet affordable shoes. And then I worry that it’s my feet that are the problem; that they’ve become vertically misshapen with age, and that this pain is just another petty ache one has to get used to. Or: perhaps I’m walking wrongly. I’ve caught myself staring at how others walk on the street (evidence of more madness). I see other people tilting their feet at a much higher angle than I do. Maybe that’s it. Have I forgotten how to walk properly? I wouldn’t put it past me.

(At this point I fear I am turning into a Samuel Beckett character. You are what you read.)

So this is what dominates my life this week, to my utter shame. The resentment of simple self-maintenance that fails to be simple. I try to dwell on more important things, but my shoes have rather gone to my head. The only response I take away from reading the news is, ‘I bet Barack Obama’s shoes fit him okay.’

Another thought. Perhaps Imelda Marcos wasn’t so greedy after all, with her palace of infinite shoes. Perhaps she just couldn’t get it right.

* * *

Sunday 18th August 2014. I’m reading Ronald Blythe’s diaries, as collected in Under A Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013). He says this on the student protests of 2011:

‘It is sad to grow old and to have never rioted.’ He’s about 90.

* * *

Monday 19th August 2014. Penguin’s annotated edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Orwell, criticising the novel in a respectful, friendly way. Waugh’s main reservation is ‘the disappearance of the Church’ in Orwell’s vision. He means Catholicism, but he implies that religion as a whole is ‘inextinguishable’ – a word that directly recalls the ending of Brideshead Revisited.

The edition also reprints Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, next to a reader’s report by the publishers, Secker & Warburg, about Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the former, Orwell lists his rules for how to write clearly, which have been much quoted ever since (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’). In the latter, the publisher notes ‘It is a typical Orwellism that Julia falls asleep while Winston reads part of [O’Brien’s book] to her. Women aren’t intelligent in Orwell’s world’. And that’s from his own publisher! The lesson seems to be: feel free to take Orwell’s advice on how to write, but bear in mind that he wasn’t perfect either.

* * *

Tuesday 20th August 2014. I realise my ongoing shoe discomfort is not rare. Today I’m in Humanities One of the British Library Reading Rooms, studying Larkin’s The Less Deceived. The woman at the desk next to me has taken her shoes and socks off. One bare foot rests on her other knee, in a kind of bookish yoga position.

* * *

Wednesday 21st August 2014. To the Phoenix for The Congress. It’s a giddy, strange film that mixes live action with psychedelic animation. The actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself. The story starts out as a satire on the state of Hollywood, but then shifts into full-on science fiction. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s going on: only twenty minutes after I leave the cinema do I fully understand what happens at the end. The critics have been polarised, with some using the term ‘Yellow Submarine-esque’ as an insult. In which case, count me on the side of those who would take it as a compliment. I admit The Congress is not a perfect film, but there’s so much imagination and originality on show – and so many sights no one has seen before. It goes into the Top Five of my favourite films this year, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Punk Singer, and Frank.

* * *

Friday 22nd August 2014. At home all day. Reading, writing, failing to write, filling out paperwork for the final college year, idly social media-ing. I leave the house just once, at about 6pm, to go to Sainsbury’s on Archway Rd. Barely a minute’s walk, and a passer-by says to me: ‘love the suit!’ The only words I hear in person all day. Well, if I must have a single comment from the world.

I suppose I really do put on a suit and tie just to buy a pint of milk. Didn’t even realise it.


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