Thursday 17th May 2018. To the Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an evening of archive documentaries, all on the subject of Raymond Williams. The co-organiser, Colm McAuliffe, is in the same PhD group as myself. He had wanted to call tonight’s event ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, but someone had advised him that this would be frivolous. He mentions this anecdote in his spoken introduction, thus getting mileage out of the joke after all.
The documentaries in question are Border Country from 1972, and The Country and The City from 1979. The latter was made to tie in with Mr Williams’s book of the same name. The book is a set text at Birkback: I consulted it when writing an essay about London.
Both these films feature Williams wandering around the landscape of England and Wales, on the 1970s. He walks and talks to the camera, and often smokes a pipe while doing so. Sometimes he uses the pipe as a means of punctuation, finishing his sentence, then inserting the pipe into his mouth and walking off into the distance. A fluid, natural movement to him, but one which these days would be rare. Williams’s pipe is his prosthetic, much as smartphones are prosthetics today. People regard them as part of their own body. My fellow student Simon King tells me of the verb ‘to lunt’, meaning to walk while smoking a pipe. The OED regards this meaning as too obscure, though, and only allows ‘lunt’ to mean ‘to smoke a pipe’ full stop, regardless of any auxiliary behaviour.
Finally there’s a screening of a 1980s TV studio discussion, made just after Williams’s death. Possibly BBC2, late night. Or Channel 4, from the time when Channel 4 catered for intellectuals. Terry Eagleton, Stuart Hall and others sit apart from each other in a circle, in an overly lit red-draped TV studio, with a mysterious vase of lilies in the middle. It is the Open University as directed by David Lynch.
Williams’s book ‘Keywords’ is mentioned as one of those life-changing, mind-improving books people buy to press into the hands of others. After the films, there’s a panel discussion, and the question arises about where a discussion like the 1980s one might be found today: it seems too highbrow even for BBC4. I’d say possibly a segment in Newsnight, though these days the guests would have been booked purely with a hope to getting a shouting match, and so produce a clickbait clip to pass around on the internet.
Afterwards, some of us repair to a pub in Marston Street, an unpretentious one of the kind that still exists in London. It is covered in union jacks and bunting, with lots of images of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle looking like their own Madame Tussaud’s dummies.
Friday 18 May 2018. Working on the paper for the Work in Progress conference at Birkbeck.
A current irritant: the backpack. Perfectly acceptable in its place, such as on the cover of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. But today’s backpackers are not walking across Europe, or even going to a rock festival. They are merely going to work. The backpack has replaced the briefcase. On the tube, every day is Glastonbury Day.
These things are ugly enough, but the imposture extends when the backpacker gets into a congested tube carriage or a lift, like the ones at Russell Square that I endure every day. Soon, without realising it, the backpack is pushing into the face of a stranger. More considerate wearers take their backpack off, holding the things in front of them until there is more space to become the human version of a long vehicle once again. I long for this fashion to move on.
Saturday 19 May 2018. A British prince and an American divorcee get married, with pleasing historical resonance. I avoid the wedding itself, but glance at some of the reports and photos. Today I’m in the London Library reading Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot, a novel which ends with a royal wedding.
There probably will not be another royal wedding on this scale for another 25 years, so I suppose one must not begrudge the pleasure this one provides for so many. I do find it intriguing how the royal-loving public nevertheless likes some royals much more than others. One of the Duchess of York’s daughters is also marrying in Windsor later in the year, but it is unlikely that there will be quite the same level of public attention. It seems that even people who like royal weddings have taste.
Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m thinking about Tom Wolfe, who died this week. His dandyism was a hangover from the New Journalism movement, when American writers were encouraged to look as stylish as their prose. Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion – they all played up to the camera as much as the typewriter. They worked on their brand.
When it comes to beach shorts and Hawaiian shirts, Hunter S Thompson is the exception that proves the rule: only he is allowed to dress like that. Joan Didion’s photographs indicate hours of learning how to pose – usually with a cigarette angled just so.
And so it was with Tom Wolfe. The white suits kept his writing on the radar. I discover now that he was fairly conservative in his politics. This is true of many dandies and white suit wearers; Â Trump’s friend Roger Stone is the most notorious example. The left wing look, meanwhile, favours a pipe (Raymond Williams, Tony Benn, Umberto Eco, Harold Wilson). Quite why a pipe should signify socialism is beyond me: the odorous things are incredibly anti-social.
The other lefty look is, of course, the Bob Dylan cap. As favoured by Lenin and, indeed, Lennon. And now, Corbyn. Dylan himself did both looks, exchanging the cap and the denims for Swinging London suits when he went electric. In the process, he adopted if not quite a conservative look, certainly a more camp look (an electric guitar is more camp than an acoustic one). Todd Haynes’s film has Dylan played by a woman at this point (Cate Blanchett), putting a neat spin on the idea of a ‘Judas’.
The trouble is, I’m writing all this while dressed like Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m going through old computer files, in the process of backing up my data. I’d been meaning to do so since I went to a talk by a British Library archivist. He warned that hard drives can start to degrade after a mere five years. A new external hard drive is pricier than I thought – £45 is the cheapest one at Argos – but the space it gives, 1000GB, makes the computers of one’s youth so laughable. Magazine adverts in the 1980s promising the glories of extra RAM chips of 64k.
I find an old review of the first Fosca album. Quite damning. The critic is an Orlando fan who says I went from articulating universal angst (Orlando) to peddling idiosyncratic misanthropy (Fosca). The truth is that these were not phases but facets. The idea that people are monolithic has never found favour with me. People are complicated, but this does not fit with the instinct to judge someone as one thing only.
Still, no review lasts like a negative review. The original is not online – I think it was just written for a webzine. It may only exist today on this old digital file I’ve just found. The author may even have forgotten it himself. But years later here I am brooding upon it.
I once saw a documentary on Radiohead’s album OK Computer. It was the most praised album of its time. This was mainly because it came on the heels of Britpop, and everyone was just relieved that bands were now allowed to sound different from Oasis. Yet the singer, Mr Yorke, was shown dwelling morosely on a rare negative review he had come across. It was the only one he believed.
Many people flatter their favourite writers or musicians in an attempt to become their friend. This rarely succeeds. If you really want to make an impact on the mind of your hero, give them a bad review.
Wednesday 23 May 2018. To the Rio to see Jeune Femme. French film (obviously), in which a young-ish woman is kicked out of her boyfriend’s Paris flat and has to fend for herself, looking for jobs and accommodation on the way. It burbles along pleasantly in this picaresque, if narcissistic fashion; not so much a story as time spent with a character.
Thursday 24 May 2018. To the ICA for ‘Queers Read This’, an evening of queer-related prose and poetry. The ICA theatre space is unchanged since the days of Kathy Acker: the same scuffed black room. I watch Joanna Walsh and Isabel Waidner perform, and I say hi afterwards. There’s a young man in red high heels who’s put out a book on Queer Loneliness. He in turn reads a piece by Olivia Laing, who also put out a book on loneliness. Both people seem well connected, so one presumes they’re not quite so lonely any more. I’d feel lonely myself, having turned up on my own, but Martin Wallace is here, and he keeps me company. We talk about the dilemma of being Morrissey fans, now that the great man has begged his admirers to vote for an anti-Islamic political party, For Britain. I’m just glad I’m not doing any indie music DJ-ing at the moment.
Friday 25 May 2018. To 30 Russell Square for a Birkbeck talk about careers after the PhD – specifically ones unrelated to academia. One speaker works for the Ministry of Defence. It sounds well paid, but she admits that her heart is really in academia – and she’s trying to get academic work published alongside that job.
Owen Hatherley is the other speaker: a foppish Birkbeck PhD graduate who has become a respected author, specialising in architecture. He bemoans not making a huge living as a freelance writing – especially now that freelance rates are frozen or are even getting lower.
The pitfalls of writing a non-fiction book, according to Mr H, are that if it’s with a small publisher and it’s not a massive seller, there’s unlikely to be a new edition. So any factual errors in the book are left seemingly unaddressed, shaming the writer down the years.
Wednesday 30 May 2018. To Covent Garden Odeon with Jon S to see Avengers: Infinity War. Although I’m not a superhero fan, I find this to be a far more entertaining film than the first Avengers one a few years ago. Here the emphasis is on teasing the audience that the good guys might not win after all – indeed that some favourite characters might die. Except they won’t, of course. This is the true ‘infinity war’: the struggle to convince audiences that an immortal character can die. Immortal as in the way Sherlock Holmes is immortal: he is a creature of infinity too.
Genre heroes are also trademarks and franchises, and any franchise similarly exists in a spirit of infinity. How many branches of Pret A Manger can be enough? If it were down to me, I’d open a chain of cafes called Borges Burgers, plus a chain of Hilbert Hotels.
‘Infinity? Is that old thing still going?’
Saturday 2 June 2018. Spend all day in Gordon Square, attending the PhD students’ in-house-only ‘Work in Progress’ conference. This is a laid-back affair. It is organised by students in the upper years and generally intended to get us in the habit of academic life. I am on in the morning, and deliver my paper on Firbank’s monocled publisher, Grant Richards.
Of the other papers, I am intrigued by one presented by the poet Sogol Sur, on ‘The Iranian Queer’. I learn that the language Farsi has genderless pronouns. As progressive as this may sound, it has meant that some Iranian poetry expressing same-sex love has been translated into English with the wrong pronouns, effectively heterosexualising the work.
Helena Esser presents research from her thesis on steampunk, which comes with that very contemporary reference: a Netflix recommendation – the documentary Vintage Tomorrows. I also enjoy Simon King on a psychogeographic walk inspired by Woolf’s Orlando. He quotes the passage where the boy Orlando sits by the oak tree on a hill and is able to see ‘nineteen English counties [â€¦] and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty’. This unlikely calculation is, I’d say, an example of the camp tone of the novel: that playful sense of exaggeration.Â Camp is not just playing with gender: it is the whole feeling of pumping things up in a knowing way.
Then a couple of talks from Julia Bell, Birkbeck’s top creative writing tutor, and Sophie Jones, a youthful tutor who once taught me in a class on the BA, though neither of us can remember the text in question.
Sunday 3 June 2018. Brunch at La Duchesse café on Stoke Newington Church Street, then along the road to pick up a guest pass to the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, courtesy of Travis E. I attend a few events: a performance of Wilfred Owen’s war poems by Penny Rimbaud, which takes place in the atmospheric Old Church. I also go to Travis’s own event with Margaret Willes, discussing John Evelyn’s diaries alongside Pepys, and then diaries in general. They remind me that so many well-known diaries are by gay men: Jarman, Orton, Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward, Keith Vaughan, James Agate, Denton Welch, Alan Bennett. One theory might be the lack of children, though in Orton’s case I was always amazed he found the energy alongside all the sex.
Then to ‘Juke Box Fury’, presented by Richard Boon, in which guests talk about favourite songs. This year the guests are all record sleeve designers. One guest has a t-shirt spoofing John Lennon’s ad: ‘BREXIT IS OVER (if you want it)’. The thing is, I wonder how Lennon himself, who would be in his seventies now, would vote. Given the musical conservatism of his solo work, I can easily see him supporting the Leave vote.
Finally I attend ‘Sex, Love & Monogamy’, a comedy lecture by Rosie Wilby, with a poetry slot by Salena Godden. By this point I’m in a pleasant drunken haze – the sort of light hedonism I haven’t done for a long while.
I speak to Andy Miller off the Backlisted podcast. Then spend time with Sophie Parkin and Tim Wells, repairing to the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill, which is rather like the Boogaloo. I also spot Suzanne Moore, the recognisable columnist, closely followed by Thurston Moore, the even more recognisable rock musician. There’s a Half Man Half Biscuit song in there somewhere.
The festival green room is an old reference library, now used as the repository for Hackney Council’s housebound service. They deliver books & audiobooks to the incapacitated – the most used service of its kind in London. For the festival guests there are not only books to read, but also a free prosecco pump. Borges’s quote about paradise being a library acquires a vital detail.
Monday 4 June 2018. I call Mum: her hand is out of the plaster cast and she’s gently getting back to normal, via physiotherapy.
I have now watched A Very English Scandal twice and I am still not satisfied.
Tuesday 5 June 2018. Breakfast at L’Atelier, a hip café on the Kingsland Road: stripped walls, dangling light fittings, no sign outside, an unbranded bohemian atmosphere, bearded men with small dogs, a row of Mac laptops, buzzing smartphones among the flat whites.
I join the Wellcome Library in Euston, mainly to read Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado, though the library has an older edition with the author’s former female name on the cover. At the time of the book’s writing (2008), he was a butch woman taking testosterone as part of a philosophical experiment into gender.
The book is written in a poetic, fragmentary style, with much digression into memoir, theory and history, rather like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Though Nelson’s book was about the partner of a natal female taking testosterone, whereas Preciado’s is from the hormone-taker’s point of view. If The Argonauts is a gateway drug, Testo Junkie is the hard stuff.
Wednesday 6 June 2018. To Senate House in Malet Street, to see my mental health counsellor.
Her: What do you think needs to change?
Me: Other people.
In Senate House lobby there are lots of security guards standing around. To each side of the central staircase are groups of young people lying on the floor, blocking the way. Some of them are blowing whistles. These turn out to be protestors in ‘Occupy’ mode. I presume it’s to do with the recent protests against the outsourcing of cleaning staff. The protestors let me pass, thankfully. I am sympathetic with their cause, though not to the point of joining them in the dust.
A few days I later I see photographs of a Free Tommy Robinson march becoming mixed up with this year’s Naked Bike Ride. Jokes about arses suggest themselves.
I once thought of going on a march – the cause now forgotten – with a placard saying, ‘MY VIEWS ON THIS ISSUE ARE FAR TOO NUANCED FOR ONE PLACARD’.
The only proper protest march I’ve ever been on was an Anti-Nazi rally in the early 90s. I remember having whistles blown in my ear, and feeling utterly out of place. It felt – perhaps unfairly – that protest was a social pastime first, and a means of change second. It felt like you had to enjoy crowds to do them; all shouting and chanting and the joy of being the one among the many – a joy which I do not share. Perhaps I lack the Mass Protest Gene, in the same way that I lack the Glastonbury Gene. I feel awkward and unsafe in a crowd. As Quentin Crisp said, there is danger in numbers.
Dandyism is the only solution: recognizing one’s failure to join the crowd, then turning this into an identity. A protest march made up of one person. And a dandy can still vote, and sign petitions, and raise awareness.
Thursday 7 June 2018. To Hackney Picturehouse with Shanti to see My Friend Dahmer. Followed by a delicious meal at Mildred’s in Dalston Square, the trendy chain of vegetarian restaurants. The film is well made, if fairly standard arthouse fare: a character study of a mixed up teenager as he tries to make friends at school. Rather close to home, the murders aside.
Friday 8 June 2018. To the exhibition at the Peltz Gallery, Transitional States, followed by a talk with one of the artists, Raju Rage, plus a woman who’s doing a PhD on the work of Paul B. Preciado. I now realise that Preciado must have changed their name and gender identity halfway through this lady’s PhD, which must surely have had an effect on her thesis. With a PhD, as opposed to an MA, one is very much at the mercy of one’s subject, and a living subject is a moving target.
Monday 11 June 2018. To Gordon Square for my annual ‘monitoring’ interview, to check on my progress as a doctoral student. This is conducted by a third party tutor, Dr Caroline Edwards, rather than one of my supervisors. It all seems to go well. The failed bid for funding aside, I’ve had a fairly good first year on the PhD. Four papers accepted at conferences, plus at least 27,000 words written for the PhD itself. The trick now is, as Dr E says, to keep up the momentum.
Wednesday 13 June 2018. Evening: to Gordon Square at the invite of my old MA tutor, Grace Halden. I am one of four PhD students addressing a class of MA students, telling them about my experiences of doing a thesis. Grace encourages me to be honest, so I talk about the idea of worth: how the lack of funding has made me brood on thoughts of my research having no worth, and that this in turn can make me feel that I have no worth as a human being full stop. This is not a rare emotion, though, and a few of the other speakers are equally gloomy about their financial prospects. This society puts so much emphasis on, as Wilde said, ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
It’s good to be reminded that Wilde himself saw particular ‘value’ in that quote, using it in both Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan. In Lady Windermere (Act 3, said by Lord Darlington) it’s about the definition of a cynic. In Dorian, Lord Henry says ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (Chapter 3 of the 1890 magazine version, Chapter 4 of the 1891 novel version). I rather think it’s the Dorian version that applies at the moment.
Thankfully, I’m not quite as energised about this as I was a few months ago. I now focus on what I alone recognise as ‘worth’, and try to take faith from that – the Van Gogh approach, I suppose. Plus I acknowledge the worth of the fee waiver, and the unpriceable worth of my supervisor.
I still struggle with the fact that I am essentially doing an unpaid internship – for myself. But the positive spin is that this is still preferable to doing an unpaid internship for someone else.
Thursday 14th June 2018. I meet up with Sarah K Marr for a drink in Bloomsbury. Have just finished reading her debut novel, All the Perverse Angels. The book jumps between a contemporary narrative and a Victorian one, via diaries and letters. There is a main theme of lesbian romance, though the twentieth century protagonist’s sexuality is entirely matter-of-fact: her more pressing stigma is her mental health. She sees the world, and events and emotions and memories, first as colours, and then more specifically as known paintings. As she is the main narrator, the reader is forced to share her strange, unreliable, dream-like perspective.
The story gets going when she finds a Victorian painting in the attic of a Cotswold cottage. It’s a Pre-Raphaelite-style retelling of the Iphis and Ianthe myth from Ovid – which reminds me of Ali Smith’s similarly Sapphic version of the myth from a few years ago, Girl Meets Boy. Because of the heavy use of paintings as part of a homosexual narrative, I thought of the tradition of ekphrasis (the rendering of paintings into prose) as a queer literary device. Ekphrasis can reclaim the default framing of the world: a queer eye for the queer guy. The best example is Dorian Gray, but Wilde does it again in his short story The Portrait of Mr W. H. Â Hollinghurst’s latest, The Sparsholt Affair, updates the tradition by comparing it to the present world of Tumblr and Grindr.
All the Perverse Angels is an example of lesbian ekphrasis: women falling in love with women in paintings, driven by curiosity mingled with desire and a need for self-projection. It’s closer to The Portrait of Mr W. H. than Dorian Gray, in that there’s also a puzzle to be solved. I was reminded of how much I like the genre of historical mysteries – if it’s done well. It’s a genre lately belittled by the trashy Mr Dan Brown and his imitators. A better example is Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. The theme of dream-like crushes between girls in historical settings also evokes Charlotte Sometimes and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The World Cup has begun, and it’s hard to find a single pub which isn’t commandeered by visible groups of Blokes suddenly appearing everywhere. Blokes with a capital ‘B’, with their endless reserved tables in front of TV screens. I spend my life going to classes on gender theory, queer theory, feminist issues and transgender issues, and somehow expect everyone else to be doing the same. So it’s a shock to me that there’s still men like this around today – it’s like finding out that Page 3 of the Sun is still going.
Or perhaps these men are really historians dressing up in tribute to the way men used to be, like the Sealed Knot Society (is there a society for reconstructing Civil War reconstructions? A Sealed Knot Society Society?)
I want to stand on a pub table and shout to these men, ‘But where do you stand on Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performativity?’ (Answer: ‘It’s a bit gassy’)
Friday 15 June 2018. Favourite films change behind your back. On re-watching Withnail & I, I find myself siding with the old ladies in the tearoom.
If you enjoy this diary and its twenty years of archives, please note the merciful lack of adverts. Donations to the Diary Fund help to convince the author of his abiding worth. Thank you.
Tags: all the perverse angels, birkbeck, gordon square, my friend dahmer, oscar wilde, Paul Preciado, raymond williams, ronald firbank, royal wedding, sarah k marr, stoke newington literary festival, testo junkie, withnail & I