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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Anecdote In Silver Velvet

I’ve officially confirmed which degree course I’m going to do. BA English, at Birkbeck University, starting this October. Four years, part-time, evening classes, and I still have to find paid work to support myself while I’m doing it.


Monday March 28th: I’m interviewed at Birkbeck for my other choice, BA Creative Writing. One of the interviewers is Jonathan Kemp, author of London Triptych. I’m offered a place on that too, so it’s down to me to make the big decision. After closer studying of the courses, it turns out English has the option of taking some creative writing-type modules, so in typical cake-and-eat-it approach, that’s what I go for. These are both incredibly popular courses, and after much rejection by the world of work lately, it feels so gratifying to find acceptance in the world of academe, twice over.

The Birkbeck building is at 43 Gordon Square, so I’ll be poring over the works of Ms Woolf close to where she actually lived.  The houses have been knocked together and are now something of a warren of classrooms and corridors. If you get lost there, as I did, you can find yourself in an underground cinema (home to Birkbeck’s film course) or a secret pocket-sized cafe.


Sunday April 10th: To an elegantly crumbling room at 33 Portland Place, now recognisable as the location for Geoffrey Rush’s consulting chambers in The King’s Speech. A few weeks ago, at one of the Last Tuesday Society’s balls, I bumped into Rachel Garley, partner of the late Sebastian Horsley. She said she wanted to give me one of Mr Horsley’s suits. I was honoured, and agreed.

So here I am in the King’s Speech room, with a long mirror, a rail of clothes and a dozen other gentlemen standing around in their socks and pants – other suit recipients – trying on the accoutrements of the deceased dandy. I know one of the others, Clayton Littlewood, whose book of modern Soho anecdotes, Dirty White Boy, featured Sebastian H on the cover.

In my case, Ms Garley has picked out an ensemble specially for me: a silver velvet 3-piece with pink lining, plus a large-collared white shirt and a fat pink tie. There’s a photograph of Mr H wearing it in his Guardian obituary.

Ms Garley’s plan is to have a big dinner at the Ivy in Mr H’s memory, with all the men wearing his suits and all the women ‘dressed up the way he liked them’ (stylish with decolletages to the fore, I think). But this will be in the autumn, as it’s getting too warm for velvet suits. Well, for other men anyway.

While this suit-giving (I refuse to say ‘gifting’) ceremony is going on, we’re told the jacuzzi room in the floor below is being used to shoot a porn film. It’s exactly what Mr Horsley would have wanted.

I wear the suit straight to a party that evening: a food & drink do for Dedalus Books in Camberwell. There’s a connection: Sebastian Horsley wrote an unkind foreword to Dedalus’s Decadent Handbook. I recall that he still turned up to the book’s launch party, though.

At the party, the suit is anecdotal gold. Or more precisely, anecdotal silver. People ask me about the suit – and who can blame them – so I get to tell the tale. And if they’ve not heard of Sebastian Horsley, I tell the tale of him too. I’m worried about going full Ancient Mariner, though, with so much to say about such a man, and such a life. How to know when to stop?

I suppose I could just say, ‘It was a gift from a deceased dandy’ and leave it at that. But if they do leave it at that, I rather think I’m at the wrong party.


Meanwhile, the Scottish Ballet are mounting an interesting new production of Alice In Wonderland. Their Humpty Dumpty is based on Leigh Bowery, while the Mad Hatter is inspired by Sebastian H. From a piece in the Herald Scotland:

The Hatter who’s on stage in the Alice ballet owes his eye-catching appearance to the late Sebastian Horsley, the self-styled Soho dandy who died last year. ‘Horsley was a tremendous peacock, wonderfully eccentric, full of flair,’ says [designer Antony] McDonald with undisguised relish. ‘There are so few genuine eccentrics around these days.’

Their costume designs are here.

In fact, I mention the Scottish Ballet show to Rachel and the others while I’m at the suit ceremony.

Rachel: I didn’t know that. How did you hear about it?

Me: I have a Google Search alert. It sends me an email whenever Sebastian’s name turns up in a newspaper.

Rachel: Oh yes. He had one of those, too.

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Unknown Pleasures: The Varicose Remix

To Cad & The Dandy in Hanover Square for a second tailored suit: this time for summer wear. Mohair, two button, light navy blue: their recommendation as an alternative to linen. The trouble with linen suits is their tendency to look utterly creased and grubby within minutes. Which I don’t mind so much, but I’m curious about the mohair argument and as a known-suit fancier I think I should own one.

C&D were featured in an article on the summer suit debate in City AM, which a kind colleague on the night shift had put aside for me. The sentiment ‘I saw this and thought of you’ is responsible for about 90% of my wardrobe, and indeed my library.


At the Whittington Hospital’s Imaging Department the other day for an ultrasound on my left leg. A decade after the removal of a large varicose vein, it’s come back to haunt me once more. Dad is apologetic about this, as it’s his family’s hereditary condition. I tell him not to feel bad, that it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being his son. Being English, I can’t let this statement hover for too long and quickly add, ‘And thanks for the full head of hair.’

So here I am again, back at the Whittington a decade later. I stand on a footstool in my underwear while a lady engineer applies the gel and the plastic thing on a wire and insists I look at the screen. I can’t make out what she’s referring to, and the only comment that springs to mind is ‘Isn’t there a Joy Division sleeve that looks like this?’

She says it’s good news: the new vein is operable after all.

‘You’ll be able to wear shorts again!’ she beams.

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A Choice of Kissing Buttons

‘Anger is the most corrosive of the emotions in its ability to increase heart strain. Avoid contact with irritating people; instead, write them a letter, then tear it up before sending it.’ – Dr Graham Jackson, cardiologist, 1998. As quoted in Matthew Engel’s ‘Extracts from the Red Notebooks.’

Sound advice, but it does need updating. I’d add: ‘And don’t put your words in an email or online…’ All that’s then achieved is adding to the amount of petty irritation in the world. I’ve been all too guilty of it myself.

So I’ve imposed a new rule on my day – 1 hour online maximum – usually the first hour after waking up. That’s plenty to clear emails, answer the ones that need answering, skim-read the online words of selected others, then switch off and do the things I actually want to do.

In my case, my internet connection is dependent on a USB stick, as the built-in wireless on my main laptop is broken. I could get the machine fixed, but I rather like being able to say (aloud) ‘Enough! Basta! Get OFF the internet!’, rip the USB wireless stick out of its socket and hurl it into a far corner. There – internet off. The computer becomes a typewriter, and not an entertainment centre. A tool of creation and contribution, rather than a thief of whole days in the cause of passive spectating and giving permanent life to petty vexations. How dismal to think you might be outlived by some casual moan you made on a message board, one bored and unguarded hour in 2002, and that it might haunt you to the grave and beyond. ‘Trivia longa, vita brevis’.


Monday last week – to Cad & The Dandy in Hanover Square, Mayfair, to be measured for a new suit. I also order a new waistcoat and white shirt – both tailored. A specially made shirt does seem an indulgence beyond indulgences, but it was always on my list of ‘One Day…’ things.

I love the thought of Dickon-shaped bits of material. And how wonderful to be able to choose things like types of lapel, numbers of jacket vents, ‘kissing buttons’, colour of the lining, colour of the piping of the lining – the bit that goes around the lining edge, number of buttons and pockets, types of buttons and pockets, angles of pockets, and more. And then do the same again for the waistcoat. It’ll be ready in a few weeks’ time. Can’t wait.

Sunday last – to The Shady Dolls Cabaret at a venue called The Last Days Of Decadence, on Shoreditch High Street. Beautiful Beardsley-esque stained glass windows, plush sofas inside, performance area in the basement. The Shady Dolls themselves are a couple of young ladies performing little comedy skits and musical turns – one of whom is Vicki Churchill’s sister Laura. There’s a few other acts including a burlesque dancer, plus a particularly good male duo called Moonfish Rhumba.

The venue is absolutely packed, and though the show is a seated affair, many have to spend the evening standing at the back, or sitting on the floor in the front. Cabaret – even ragged-edged, Fringe Revue-type cabaret like this – seems very much a popular draw at the moment.

Again, I do think this current scene would been unthinkable in the 90s. Back then, young people who were keen to get on a stage and artistically express themselves – and feel part of the world too – pretty much had to form a Britpop band or else. They had to fit in with or react against Blur, or Oasis, or Pulp. There was a ‘loungecore’ scene, granted, but it was very much on the margins. Today, role models are just as likely to be The Mighty Boosh (surreal, idiosyncratic comedy), or Flight of The Conchords (ditties, character interaction), or Dita Von Teese (burlesque dancing) as the latest guitar band.

I meet Jo Roberts – there with Charley S – in her offstage persona. Am more used to seeing her onstage persona fronting the Rude Mechanicals, in a beehive blonde wig and whiteface make-up, all deadpan glowering. Meeting her brunette, charming and friendly ‘normal’ self is a little thrilling – like meeting Lady Jekyll after witnessing Ms Hyde.  I’m always in awe of performers and actors who go in for transformation. I find it hard work enough just being myself.

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