The Everlasting Carrier

Saturday 4th November 2017. Working in the London Library. Stop for lunch with Amy Prior (now a fellow LL member), at Wright’s in Pall Mall. This used to be Spreads, but the café seems identical under new management.

Evening: to Fontaine’s on the Stoke Newington Road. This is a nice vintage-tinged cocktail bar with clean black walls and portraits of vintage actors on the wall. Tonight I’m irritated by that swell of strangers who insist on having fun on a more aggressive level, purely because it’s a Saturday. Saturday night fun is Competitive Fun. Un-fun fun. Some barn door of a man rams his shoulder into mine as he walks past. I decide I can’t remember how to enjoy myself, so I leave early. The bar lady upstairs is busy making an infinite number of cocktails, shaking and pouring, shaking and pouring again. It looks like incredibly hard work. Tonight I find that fun is too much like hard work too. Really, there are days when all one wants is an early night.


Sunday 5th November 2017. Incredibly, some diary readers have taken pity and quietly donated the cost of my getting varifocals. I am delighted about this. However, the process still offers up a few hurdles.

First of all, I ask the assistant at Boots Opticians why their NUS discount applies for new frames, but not for fitting new lenses into current frames. Answer: ‘I don’t make the rules’. John Coltrane she is not.

She also warns me that old frames can snap in the ‘reglazing’ process.  A day letter she phones to say that my beloved old frames have indeed snapped. ‘I did warn you’, she adds, helpfully.

So I get brand new frames after all: slightly trendy, goggle-like ones. The varifocals aspect takes some getting used to: one feels one has to do extra work just in order to see, so that’s me in a bad mood already. I expect spectacles to do the work for me from the off, not offer a little game of ‘find the right bit to look through’. Boots Opticians have promised me they’ll exchange them for separate pairs (distance and reading). If I’m not happy with them after four weeks. Well, we shall see. Or not, as the case may be.

With me, ‘getting used to’ is an unwelcome sensation as it is. I’ve always had a reluctance to embrace new systems. I’ve quit whole jobs purely because the management brought in a new cataloguing system, just when I’d perfected my own funny little way around it (my dyspraxia is probably in the mix too). I’ll wear a pair of shoes until my toes poke out the front, not because of my lack of funds, but because I don’t like the idea of change. But equally, the trouble with the clothes one likes best is that they get worn out. Because they get worn, out.

PhD now at 4000 words.


Monday 6th November 2017. I’m reading Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. Very impressed by Kraus’s level of research, with pages and pages of her sources, and it’s not even a conventional biography. Find myself annoyed at a music error on page 219. Kraus says Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ ‘rose to the top of the UK single’s [sic] charts’. The typo aside, it made Number 2, which is not quite the top. Kraus’s point is that Acker took over from Anderson as a kind of ambassador for the 80s New York art scene.

Kraus also seems to get less interested in her subject as her life goes on. I’d have like to have read more about the work with the band the Mekons, or Acker’s forays into the early 90s scene of electronic literature, when email was just starting to come into use. Instead, Kraus gives the reader the gossip on her sex life, and her money life. We learn how much she had stashed away in a family inheritance (or didn’t), how she owned three homes at one point, and how she bought a flat in Brighton only to ask Neil Gaiman to sell it for her. And then there’s the damning accounts of her fall from literary fashion in the 90s, to the point where she can’t get teaching work in universities, even though her work is being studied.

According to Kraus, one publisher asked a young author of theirs not to get a praiseworthy quote from Acker for his back cover, because she was considered ‘no longer popular’. It’s a reminder that those quotes on books tell you less about the book than they do about the publisher.


Wednesday 8th November 2017. PhD at 6000 words. I am on schedule for once. It’s mostly notes, but I’ve taken the advice to try and write in full sentences at all times. That way, the notes can just be fleshed out and edited, and it never feels like Writing, capital ‘W’.


Thursday 9th November 2017. The 100th birthday of Firbank’s Caprice, if one goes from the date it went on sale. The London Library has a first edition copy, available to borrow. It’s in excellent condition, though as with clothes this reminds one how seldom Firbank’s books are read. Still, the beautiful Augustus John frontispiece is intact and bright, a whole century later.


Friday 10th November 2017. More from Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. On aging:

‘Before time accelerated, deaths among friends in the art world were like salt to a sting, bringing unresolved feuds to the surface. Now we care less, or are nicer.’ (p. 14).

Elsewhere, Kraus interviews one of Acker’s old schoolmates via text message. Rather brilliantly, Kraus includes the signing-off part from the end of the message:

‘We should talk again. Right now, I have to watch wolf hall!’ [sic] (p. 41).

From Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates, quoted by Kraus (p.44): ‘I was strange; I tried to hide my strangeness…’

And from Acker’s own diary: ‘I’m sick of not knowing who I am’.


Saturday 11th November 2017. One reason for using the London Library or the British Library over the university libraries is that one can properly hang up one’s coat. In the BL there’s a choice between a manned cloakroom or a row of lockable hangers in the basement. Lockable, because each hanger comes with a suspiciously fetishistic chain (I’m still thinking about Kathy Acker). The idea is that the chain threads through a coat sleeve to be locked to a clasp on the outer frame, thus securing one’s coat. When there are no coats on the hangers, one can run one’s hands along the dangling chains and pretend to be a Cenobite demon from Hellraiser.

By contrast, college libraries in winter resemble refugee centres. Coats, scarves, backpacks and massive wheeled suitcases clutter up the aisles. I have to bundle up my poor coat and shove it unceremoniously onto a window sill.

After my death, I’d like my bones to be made into coat hooks for the users of Birkbeck Library. It would be like Jeremy Bentham’s embalmed body in UCL nearby, but more useful.


Sunday 12th November 2017. In the British Library, I find an old book on student grammar, Today and Tradition by Riley Hughes (1960). ‘A cliché is a pre-package word group’ says Riley. ‘It prevents you from examining the object before you, from thinking about it and then describing it accurately. When you use a cliché, your mind is engaged in doing absolutely nothing’. True, but clichés can often give the reader a break.

Another thought: to use a cliché is to plagiarise from everyone in particular.


Monday 13th November 2017. More Kathy Acker. Chris Kraus says Acker was more ‘shocking and singular’ in London than she was in New York. This is no surprise. For the British, just being American is shocking enough. ‘You mean you aren’t constantly uneasy in your own skin? What must that be like?’


Were it down to me, the new female Doctor Who, who is meant to be hundreds of years old and – we now learn – is able to change gender, would meet Virginia Woolf. Thus the Doctor would give Woolf the idea for Orlando.


Tuesday 14th November 2017. An email from Birkbeck: I’ve been selected to receive the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course prize, for an ‘outstanding performance, as every piece of assessed work fell within the distinction category’.

I’m still awaiting the dissertation mark, but this prize means that it has to be a distinction (first class), and that my overall grade is a distinction too. I couldn’t hope for a better result.

When I finished the BA English in 2015, I received the course’s ‘student of the year’ prize then, too. Now I’ve done the same thing again with the MA.

I’m really hoping this will make a difference when I re-apply for a PhD scholarship next year. In the meantime, I have such a crush on my own mind right now. I may have to stalk it.

I celebrate impulsively, by myself, with a glass of prosecco at the Barbican Cinema Café. It turns out that one of the staff saw my news (I posted it on Facebook). He congratulates me, and lets me into a screening of Paddington 2 for free.


Wednesday 15th November 2017. Dinner downstairs in the Dalston house, courtesy my landlady K and guest Charley Stone, our mutual friend. K adds prosecco to celebrate my result.


Thursday 16th November 2017. Mum in town for lunch (Albertini, near the British Library). This had been booked for weeks, but now we have something nice to celebrate. Prosecco for the third day.


Monday 20th November 2017. I deliver a book review for The Wire: a collection of essays on punk rock. The title is Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night. I also submit my favourite books of 2017: Hollinghurst’s Sparsholt Affair, Mark Fisher’s The Weird and The Eerie, and CN Lester’s Trans Like Me.


Wednesday 22nd November 2017. A seminar at Birkbeck with a curator from the British Library. He uses a phrase to describe the dream of every archivist throughout history: ‘The Everlasting Carrier’. As in something that will store information forever. Books crumble away, computer discs can deteriorate, or their respective readers can become obsolete (what to do with floppy disks now?). I learn that cassette tapes are thought to last for 50 years, if you’re lucky. But also: today’s hard drives are thought to last no more than five years without file degradation, even the brand new ones. I make a note to get my back-up drive backed up.


Monday 27th November 2017. To the annual Birkbeck Booker Prize talk, this year featuring Julian Barnes. This is held in the main room at Friends House, the Quaker building on the Euston Road. I’ve been to the café but the never the main room. I suppose it’s what the Quakers use by way of a cathedral: a vast and geometrical space, with rows of seating rising vertiginously on three sides, and a huge tiered skylight. But still without a hint of ornateness, thus keeping the Quaker ideal of pure function without noise (in any sense).

Barnes mainly discusses The Sense of an Ending. He remarks on the film version’s Richard Curtis-sy happy ending. ‘Cinema needs redemption. Novels do not’. Well, I think, that only applies to commercial cinema, and literary novels. There are plenty of art house films with troubled endings, and commercial novels with heartwarming conclusions – the ones one sees in WH Smiths. Redemption guaranteed, or your money back.


Tuesday 28th November 2017. Today I discover that if you don’t save your work to a USB stick before the battery in a rented university laptop runs out, the laptop resets its temporary memory. So your work is gone forever. Four hours of it in my case. It’s an education of a sort, though for a few angry minutes I curse the very idea of computers, and vow never to use one again.


Wednesday 29th November 2017. An event at the Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia. Travis E. is talking about his new book of the twentieth century, as told in diaries. He points out how many of the entries are written in a kind of Canute-like grumpiness about the way the world is happening without the writer’s permission. Noel Coward, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Pym, all whining about how they dislike the Beatles or the groups on Top of the Pops.

A diary entry involves stepping out of the stream of life, in order to reflect. But in these cases, the writers are aware that pop culture is not for them. They’ve not so much stepped out of the stream as noticed how the stream has moved away from them. Aging can make one into a cultural outsider. Or rather, it did in the 60s and 70s. Nowadays rock gigs and festivals are aimed as much at the middle-aged as they are the young. And indeed, many of the bands performing are no spring chickens themselves.


Thursday 30th November 2017. The dissertation mark comes in: 78. This was for the big project on music and belonging, as depicted in the novels of Alan Hollinghurst. Satisfyingly, it’s my highest mark of the MA. So I got out not just with a sense of achievement, but improvement.


Tuesday 5th December 2017. The diary is twenty years old this week. I posted the first entry as 8th December 1997, writing in raw HTML code. It was before the invention of blogging platforms.

I steel myself to re-read the first entry today. It seems I was calling myself ‘Richard’ at the time – well, that didn’t last. And I was playing in an early version of my band Fosca, a noisy guitar-based one that lasted about a year. We made recordings, as the diary indicates, but I eventually decided they weren’t really ‘me’. Starting a diary is often an attempt to work out who one is.

So: twenty years ago I was rehearsing for a gig at the Wag Club in Wardour Street, sharing a bill with the band Guernica. I recall that Guernica was Erol Alkan’s band, before he took his DJ-ing more seriously. I revisited the Wag earlier this year, in 2017: it was where my brother Tom’s friends put on a private gig after he died. I see I also mention my friend Charley playing with the band Salad. As of recent weeks Charley is once again playing with Salad, who’ve now reformed.

The person that wrote that entry, twenty years ago, certainly wasn’t the one writing this entry. I wasn’t even the same person a year later, let alone two decades later. After failing so publicly with the band Orlando, I was in a state of trying new things, and not always nobly. At first I was trying hard just to second-guess what the world wanted, and how I could fit in. Then I became more honest, and accepted the way I was. Fosca found little success in the UK, but it had a small impact overseas, especially in Sweden. And I was making music that was me being utterly honest about myself – that’s what mattered.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from diary keeping, it’s that it’s a good way of finding out not so much who one is, as who one is not. Self-delusion becomes more obvious when written down, even more so when published.

So this has been a twenty-year record of trying and failing. From different versions of my own band, to playing in different bands (Spearmint, Scarlet’s Well), to trying different types of work (DJ-ing, journalism), and moving in different social circles (The Last Tuesday Society, The Boogaloo, Shane MacGowan, Sebastian Horsley). From making obscure music on no money, to becoming a mature student on no money.

I note how my economic status is unchanged from the way it was twenty years ago: I still live on hardly any money, and I still live by myself, in a rented furnished room (and my new landlady reminds me that I have at least upgraded to a double room!). Still, looking around in London now, I’m grateful that I am not homeless, and I’m grateful that I can still live in London.

London is this diary’s other subject: the centre of the world, then as now. Except that it is really a centre of worlds, plural, as in worlds of possibility. In that respect, it is London that feels like the archivists’ everlasting carrier. For centuries, the city has borne endless souls and given them endless chances.

Today I learn that I’ve been accepted to give a twenty-minute paper at my first academic conference. This will be at London’s Senate House Library, in March.

In the trying of new things there is a sense of the eternal.

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