Thursday 10 August 2017. Tobi H visits from New York, friends Kyle and Caroline in tow, and we have a heady night out at the Ku bar in Soho. Tobi stays the night. A rare spike in the otherwise sparse history of my love life. At least, since the Tories got in.
Friday 11 Aug 2017. Â To the Rio for a screening of 1991: The Year Punk Broke, accompanied by Kath G, Shanthi and Paul. A live band goes on first: Skinny Girl Diet. Two young women, guitar and drums only. Lights up throughout, audience all seated. This might diminish the rock gig effect, but it does show off the Rio’s Art Deco architecture.
I still enjoy much of the music from the film: the pre-Britpop wave of American grunge bands all signing to major labels. Hence the title, implying that the footage represents a version of the punk spirit ‘breaking’ into the mainstream. It’s mostly footage of Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana touring European festivals in the summer of the year in question, just before the release of Nevermind. Thurston Moore’s larking about to the camera turns him from ice-cool poet to brattish irritant. At one point he lets the camera film him using and flushing a backstage toilet: a dangerous taunt for critics. Well, ‘Teenage Riot’ still astonishes. The other three of Sonic Youth come out better: the drummer is a virtuoso in any genre.
Kim Gordon has the same invulnerable charisma as Stevie Nicks, then as now. To be worshipped so much for so long takes a large amount of nerve, so it helps to be American. As ever, there’s an element of timing, of a vacancy being filled. Role models, like ideas, depend on the right historical moment. The Stone Roses saw that their generation needed a Beatles, and filled the vacancy out of sheer arrogance. They got away with worse than murder: they got away with laziness. And still the worship came, because the need for new gods is too powerful. On the canal down the road, a gallery sells prints of Stone Roses photographs for £720 each.
In the 1991 film, Babes in Toyland sound like the noisiest group on earth. That was the ‘punk’ aspect of the music: certain noise settings on guitar pedals, sonic distortion as the creation of new space. And Nirvana: then on the cusp of global domination, the footage now imbued with inevitable gravitas. The young man in pain, the noise of fame and suicide still in the future, now helplessly distorting the past.
Saturday 12 Aug 2017. With Tobi and co once more, this time to the club night Pink Glove. It’s walking distance for me: the Victoria pub off Dalston Lane. Named after the Pulp song, it’s a gay indie night where the bulk of the music is vintage alternative: 80s and 90s. I have to explain who Pulp are – or were – to my American friends. Were they the wrong kind of British, compared to Oasis, or just too arch? No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’ comes on, and I remember it as the theme from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. This in turn points out how these kind of club nights are school reunions of a kind for me too. I worry about wallowing in the past: how soon is now? And yes, they play that too.
Perhaps when I’m finally satisfied with the present I’ll be fine about the past.
I part company with the Younger Americans and walk alone up Kingsland Road. Saturday night, 3AM. Little silver canisters all over the pavement, beneath the rising tower of the luxury flats at Dalston Kingsland station. The canisters are to do with drugs, though legal. Today’s drug of choice is nitrous oxide. Laughing gas. How else to react to the times?
Two drunk women sidestep into my path. Here we go.
‘We just want to sayâ€¦ You really look likeâ€¦ Will Ferrell.’
Well it’s preferable to ‘Oi, Donald Trump!’ heard on the escalator at Euston a few weeks ago.
Then they let me pass. I go home.
Thursday 17 Aug 2017: I see The Big Sick at the Rio. Terrible title, but an excellent comedy about the culture clash. Though it has that Judd Apatow trait of going on too long. Also an indication of the mainstream American knowledge of Pakistani culture, or the lack of it: it’s as if all those 80s British films – My Beautiful Laundrette and so on – never happened. Is America thirty years behind in the cultural awareness stakes? Don’t answer that. The film has a very good joke about 9/11 which probably had to wait till 2017 to be allowed in. Not too soon any more, not now.
Struggling with the dissertation for the MA (Contemporary Literature and Culture, Birkbeck). 15,000 words, titled ‘Music and Belonging in Alan Hollinghurst’. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in, except that I’ve never written 15,000 words about anything before.
The other three students in my summer ‘Study Buddies’ group are doing class in contemporary Indian novels, female villains in X-Men comics, and the environmental anxieties behind Godzilla films.
I have a complete lack of motivation at this point. The question keeps coming: is this really the best thing I should be doing with my summer, with my time, with my life, at this age? So hard to know. Right now I have a feeling of being utterly out of the swim of society. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Society and I exist in mutual suspicion.
Not earning an income is unavoidably troubling, though. People in their forties are meant to have a fair amount of spending money – almost by way of compensation. I see friends going on foreign trips to festivals and big concerts and West End plays, and I admit I’m envious. But this is to make the mistake of comparing myself with others. I soon remember how ill-suited I am to so many normal jobs, and how I wouldn’t last. What am I suited to, now, today? Writing, editing, research, and (hopefully) lecturing. I’ve now clocked up six years studying English literature at graduate and post-graduate levels, and on top of all that I have my long experience of life in the real world before. That has to count for something. But – oh, one’s moods are all over the place.
Wednesday 30th August 2017. Saturation coverage of the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. As notable deaths from the summer of 1997 go, I’m thinking more about William Burroughs and Jeffrey Bernard. Princesses for the wrong kind of people.
The blameless subject of my dissertation, Alan Hollinghurst, puts out a new novel only every 6 or 7 years. The latest one, The SparsholtÂ Affair is due out later this year, three weeks after my dissertation deadline. Happily, today I acquire an advance proof courtesy of a kind person at Pan MacMillan. If nothing else, the dissertation will be right up to date.
Thursday 31st August 2017. Richard Smith dies. In the 90s he was the main British music critic to specialise in gay perspectives, albeit with a provocative agenda. Cheeky, bitchy, and sometimes downright cruel, he was nevertheless kind to my own bands. Orlando and Fosca had rave reviews from him in Gay Times.
Mr Smith’s review of the first Fosca album was entirely made up of quotes from the lyrics sheet. I suppose I could have invoiced him. But I suspect he thought I’d be amused or flattered or both. He was quite right.
RS was one of those few journalists whose work you could actually identify without consulting the byline. Today, despite all the emphasis on ‘building your brand’, so many journalists strive to be exactly the same as each other. That dreaded contemporary acronym, FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is really a version of TOSO – Terrified of Standing Out. What I suppose I’m saying is that I think most journalists are a bunch of TOSOs.
Saturday 1st September 2017. A better day: I finish another chapter of the dissertation.
Saturday 2nd September. Mum visits, and I show her around my new stomping ground. We start off with the trendy Café Route in the core of the current gentrification, Dalston Square. This is followed by the Curve Garden, Café Oto and the Arcola Theatre – all part of the New Dalston spirit – and then we hit the Babel intensity of Kingsland High Street. Here, Old Dalston bumps along with the new: Â multi-cultural, multi-income, multi-desperation, multi-sanity. In such streets is the true flavour of the metropolis, where everyone, even the mad, seems aglow with purpose.
Then north on the bus to Stoke Newington, with its more Richard Curtis-sy style of London. We see the beautiful fallow deer in Clissold Park, and the umpteen trendy cafes in Church Street, including one whose name is the chemical formula for caffeine. Then back south to the canal in Haggerston, where we walk along to the towpath to Islington.
I’m audibly aware of the presence of rich people who sit drinking wine on many of the boats, Eton accents broadcasting across the canal. But then one feels that about London full stop: the danger of it becoming a playground for the rich. Thankfully, people are starting to ask questions about what London is actually for, so one remains optimistic. The Arcola Theatre has Pay What You Can days for its plays.
Sunday 3rd September 2017. My 46th birthday. Ms G my landlady says ‘Happy birthday!’ in the hallway. Well, I have to spend another day in the library. Have to. I battle stomach pains (seeing doctors about this) and wrestle not very happily with the dissertation.
Monday 4th September 2017. Finish Chapter 1 and write 1000 new words for Chapter 4.
Thoughts on books as objects. I’m shopping for a new mp3 player, and become increasingly bad tempered with the dominance and cost of Apple products. I settle for a SanDisk Clip Jam, only to find out that it cannot play the audiobooks I bought off iTunes. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to spend the equivalent sum on print books. Books are cheap, calming, offline machines. And they actually belong to you after you’ve bought them. If a house is a machine for living in, a book is a machine for living.
Tuesday 5 September 2017. To Barberette in Hackney Downs to have my roots done. It’s a gender-neutral, bohemian-friendly, affordable hairdresser’s. Pictures on the wall of David Bowie in the 70s and Agyness Deyn in the 2000s. I ask for a bleached ‘do that somehow looks contemporary but without a ‘fade’, the current name for shaving the sides. Style, not fashion.
Today I somehow manage to have my hair bleached and cut and still find time to write over 1000 words on the dissertation. I think this is called ‘putting a spurt on’.
Wednesday 6th September 2017. An unexpected present from Liz at the London Library, who’s leaving: Woolf’s Writer’s Diary, the beautiful Persephone edition. Lots of words in there about persisting when the spirit sags, of course.
Evening: a Study Buddies meeting, with fellow Birkbeck MA students Craig, Jassy and Hafsa. I’ve found that this really helps. Our first meetings were simply ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions: an enforced two hours of silent writing in exam conditions, broken into four 25-minute bursts. For the last fortnight, we meet up and pass around chapters of our work, adding proofreading and presentational suggestions, while being careful not to cross over into the realms of collusion (of which there’s strict rules). Most of it is about getting the wording of references and footnotes right.
The sessions have really helped alleviate the sense of being cut adrift. In my case, it triggers a healthy burst of productivity. In short, it gives me a kick up the bum. I suppose it’s why people still go to offices to work. Procrastination is site-specific.
Saturday 9th September 2017. Finish reading The Sparsholt Affair, just in time for the dissertation.
Monday 11 Sept 2017. Finish the cuts on Draft 1. Straight onto Draft 2. Write the abstract and the acknowledgements.
Each draft takes a lot less time than the one before. I make dramatic cuts to Draft 1 to fit the word count, and then by Draft 4 it’s really just pedantic polishing. That’s the hope, anyway.
Tuesday 12th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 2. I note the term ‘androcentric’ for Hollinghurst’s novels (used by my supervisor Joe B). It means male-focused, but in a more aesthetic and less pejorative way than ‘phallocentric’. The latter tends to have overtones of masculine repression. ‘Androcentric’ is also perfect for describing Christopher Nolan’s films.
Wednesday 13th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 3. Evening: drinks with the three Study Buddies at the College Arms, Store Street, Bloomsbury. They’ve all finished and delivered their dissertations. I’ve been granted the option of a two week extension, because of my dyslexia. Except that my competitive urge has now kicked in, and I want to prove I can make the normal deadline after all. That, and the fact that I could really do with a break before the PhD starts in early October.
Thursday 14 September 2017. I work like mad. Finish Draft 4.
Friday 15th September 2017. Up at 5am to maximise working time. Finish Draft 5, and hand in the MA dissertation on time by noon. So I make the proper deadline after all. One copy is uploaded electronically, then I have to print out two copies using the college printers, get them bound at Ryman’s, and post them into the big slot in the wall at Birkbeck’s School of Arts reception, 43 Gordon Square. All done. I’ll receive the grade for the whole MA around early December.
After sending the thing off, I now realise I should have included Debbie Smith and Atalanta Kernick in the acknowledgements. It was their 45th birthday present to me, the Carl Wilson book Let’s Talk About Love, that inspired the whole theme of the dissertation.
Saturday 23 September 2017. To Brighton for the weekend. An impulsive treat for myself, aimed at creating something vaguely in the way of a holiday. I’m trying to mark the small gap of time between the end of my MA (15 September) and the start of my PhD (5 Oct).Â Too poor to go abroad (haven’t done so in 8 years), but I always like Brighton.
There’s a visible increase in rough sleepers on the pavement, especially around the station. But then it’s the same in London. Inequality has never had it so good.
I stay at the decrepit and shambling Royal Albion Hotel. This is partly because I prefer a Shining-esque labyrinthine hotel to a B&B or a boutique one, but mostly because every other large hotel in Brighton is booked up, thanks to the Labour conference. Large hotels, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald on parties, are so intimate. At small hotels there isn’t any privacy.
Evening: attend Simon Price’s 50th birthday party, held across two floors at the Latest bar in Brighton’s Manchester Street. I chat to Taylor Parkes, Seaneen, Emma and Adrian, and Toby Amies (whose film The Man Whose Mind Exploded I absolutely love ). Simon P tells me how he still regards the Orlando album, Passive Soul, as a classic.
Withstand the less welcome attentions of drunk people I don’t really know, though one of them says:
‘I’ve just got to say who you remind me of’
‘Go on then.’
‘Oh, that’s a comparison I actually quite like.’
It’s the second 50th birthday party I’ve been to, and I notice a common feature of such events. There’s a projected slideshow on the wall of photos from the host’s past. I’d previously thought such projections were only for funerals. But I suppose it’s a use of photography to defy death, or possibly to help prevent early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Mr Price puts on a good party: a free vegan buffet, two floors for dancing or chatting. I drink too much red wine (ruining my throat for two days), talk rubbish, and stay too late. Taylor P shows me a photo of his son, who like all ten-year-old boys looks a bit like the left-wing commentator Owen Jones.
Lots of Eighties pop music plays on the dancefloor, just as it did when I first met Simon P in the 90s. The Eighties haven’t aged a bit.
Sunday 24 September 2017. I walk around the seafront in my black suit (slightly too cold for the white one), bumping into Seaneen again – this time with her child. Huge banners on the centre next to the Grand: ‘FOR THE MANY’.
One new sight on the beach is the ‘i360’ tower, a heavily-branded attempt by British Airways to duplicate the success of the London Eye. Instead of a wheel of transparent pods, it’s a single oval capsule that goes up and down a central cylinder for no very good reason. A Space Needle and Thread, as it were. It’s right by the wreck of the old West Pier. As I pass I see that the ride is offering 10% off for Labour delegates. There’s also a wicker basket champagne stall on the way in. A comment suggests itself about champagne socialism and looking down on people, but I’m too hungover to make it.
Wednesday 27th September 2017. Evening: to the Prince Charles Cinema with Tim Chipping for Oxide Ghosts, a film of out-takes of the 1997 Chris Morris TV series, Brass Eye. It’s made and presented in person by the Brass Eye director, Michael Cumming. Cumming turns out to be a boyish, rather Terry Gilliam-like maverick, slouching in baseball cap and ripped shirt sleeves.
Although the Prince Charles is packed with cult comedy fans, Cumming is clearly a fan of Brass Eye himself. He delights in Morris’s unique similes and malapropisms, quoting them constantly and calling his explanation of references in the credits as ‘trainspotting’ on his part. There’s even some footage of Cumming unlocking dusty crates of his own VHS tapes, as if chancing upon the Ark of the Covenant.
This is something that Tim and I discuss before the screening when talking about our own records. How proud are you allowed to be of your own work? There’s the common response of saying that you haven’t looked at your work for decades, but there’s some vanity in this too, of course. Humility can be a brand-building strategy – ‘he’s just like us!’ Self-mythologizing, meanwhile, can be more honest. A form of un-false modesty. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the art has the last word, while the humans and their vanities come and go. The blooper sections are droll enough, but it’s the cut sections of whole ideas that make Oxide Ghosts worthwhile. ‘Just give us more to see’, sings Dot in Sunday in the Park With George.Â
Chris Morris is still as careful to control his work as ever, and has only given his blessing to this film on the understanding that it’s not to be made available in any other format. I understand that this is partly for rights reasons – always a nightmare – but it’s also to make the event a bit more special. To see the film, you have to attend one of Mr Cumming’s cinema screenings or nothing.
I’m reminded how Kate Bush declined to release a video recording of her Hammersmith comeback concerts after all. Both cases become protests against the assumption that live events are just YouTube content in waiting. But there’s some irony in this, given Oxide Ghosts’ reliance on archives. And indeed, here I am, mediating my memory of the evening in a public diary. That tension between wanting to record everything, and knowing that there will be always be distortion in doing so.
If you enjoy this diary and its twenty years of archives, please note that it is funded entirely by readers’ donations. You can make a donation to the Diary Fund with this button. Thank you.
Tags: 1991 The Year Punk Broke, alan hollinghurst, angst, birkbeck, birthdays, brighton, catcalls, dalston, dalston rio, Dissertation, ma, MA Contemporary Literature and Culture, manesake list, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, stone roses, Studying, The Sparsholt Affair, Tobi Haberstroh