Write Rococo; Edit Baroque.

Saturday 6th November 2014. I’m thinking about Jeremy Thorpe, who died on Thursday 4th. If a film were to be made about the whole bizarre Norman Scott case, a good choice for director would be Wes Anderson. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have scenes in which beloved pets are killed, needlessly so. So it was in real life with Rinka, the dog of Norman Scott. Thorpe – or at least someone high up in the Liberal Party – allegedly tried to bump Scott off. But on the fateful day the hired assassin panicked, and Scott’s dog literally took the bullet. I’ll always associate the story with three things. Firstly, Quentin Crisp’s description of the bungling hitman (a former RAF pilot) as ‘a disused airman’. Secondly, the word ‘bunnies’ used by Thorpe in a letter to Scott to describe the two of them together. And thirdly, Peter Cook’s court judge sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball show, which spoofed the trial. The sketch contained a memorable piece of innuendo: ‘he is a self-confessed player of the pink oboe’. This turned out to be a suggestion from Billy Connolly, who was performing at the same revue. Now Thorpe has died, perhaps the full truth will finally out. Then the strange, surreal story of shot dogs, denied sexuality and hasty cover-ups might at last make sense.

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Sunday 7th November 2014. I’m reading about the popularity of Hemingway when an idle joke suggests itself: ‘For sale: Hemingway quote. Rather worn.’

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Another quote, often wrongly attributed to Hemingway, is a writing tip: ‘write drunk, edit sober’. Hemingway certainly drank, but he only did so after he’d clocked up the day’s quota of prose. But figuratively it’s good advice: one should write freely as if without inhibitions, then edit to impose form and intention. In fact, after reading about Firbank and Beardsley and the differences between rococo and baroque – where rococo is florid, playful and intimate, and baroque is extravagant, ornate, and imposing – I’ve come up with my own advice:

Write rococo; edit baroque.

* * *

Tuesday 9th December 2014. Class at Birkbeck: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Tutor: Joe Brooker. Despite all my sarcastic jokes to myself –  ‘this’ll be a laugh’ – Plath’s novel does indeed have laugh-aloud moments. One is when the self-deluding boyfriend insists on undressing, to show the heroine ‘what a man looks like’:

Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

* * *

Wednesday 10th December 2014. Final class of the autumn term: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Tutor: Grace Halden. To prepare, I read some of Amis’s letters to Larkin. They’re full of smutty jokes about what he wants to do to his female students in Swansea, fantasies which make the fictional Jim Dixon look something of a saint. How much of it he really means isn’t clear, though. That’s the trouble with reading books of letters: as they’re written for private eyes, something of the real meaning is lost on the public.

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Thursday 11th December 2014. At about 7pm I pass Waterstones Gower Street and notice they’re having some sort of Christmas event. There’s free wine and nibbles, authors are dotted around the shop signing their latest books, and carol singers are belting away on the stairs, in full Dickensian costume. I wander in, gratefully accept a glass of white wine, and mooch about. Then I realise that it’s a bit rude to approach authors at book events if one isn’t going to buy anything. I’m even poorer than usual at the moment, and non-college books have to be struck from my budget until I’m more flush. But when I spot Viv Albertine perched among the Moleskines I can’t resist telling her how much I enjoyed her film Exhibition.

‘I write about it in the book,’ she says, indicating the fresh piles of her memoir, with the excellent title of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. I blurt out something about looking forward to read it (translation: I can’t buy it right now- sorry! ), and I stumble away sheepishly, embarrassed at my lack of a purchase. Then I spot Robin Ince and Stewart Lee and avoid them too, for the same reason (they’re signing an anthology of comic horror stories, Dead Funny). I find Travis Elborough in the basement and chat to him, knowing he won’t mind.

Still, Viv Albertine knows what it’s like to be poor. The first line of her book says so, as quoted by all the reviews: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’

(Which reminds me… Rare Advert Break! If you enjoy this diary, which comes with a guaranteed lack of Kevin Bacon pop-up adverts, please make a donation to keep it, and the author, going:

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Thank you.)

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I get home and watch Question Time. Russell Brand and Nigel Farage are on the panel. Mr Brand accuses Mr Farage of being a ‘Pound Shop Enoch Powell’. This remark is given so much attention that within twenty-four hours there are whole articles dwelling on this single phrase, explaining just who Mr Powell was, and how he may or may not relate to UKIP. There is a sense now of single seeds of comment put about, which then flower into great forests of discussion, argument, and counter-argument, and back again. Never before in the field of human discourse were so many words triggered by so few.

Another example is the case of the Cereal Killer Café, in East London. This is a new emporium selling only bowls of cereal from around the world, much like the Cyber Candy shops with their imported sweets. A tidal wave of scorn erupted when a video emerged, featuring a Channel 4 reporter interviewing one of the shop owners. He asks why such novelty shops exist in areas like Shoreditch where there’s also extreme poverty. The young owner gets flustered and says ‘I’m stopping the interview – I don’t like your questions’.

This clip is then presented on the internet as an example of ‘hipsters’ ruining the world, blind to real life problems. Yet London has always had its novelty shops. I remember my joy as a teenager at discovering there was a place in Covent Garden which only sold Tintin-related merchandise. A whole Tintin shop! What’s far more depressing is bland franchise shops and cafes taking over London. Quirky and colourful little independent businesses are what London is for.  It’s property developers, closing down unique venues like the Buffalo Bar and Madame JoJos, who really should be hauled over the coals.

Disproportionate hatred has become a game any number can play.

* * *

Friday 12th December 2014. First essay mark of the final year: 74. This is for the short-ish one on Waugh. It’s a First, but for me it’s the lowest mark in about ten essays. Given education is a competition with oneself, this is a smack in my smug complacency. Mustn’t slacken off now.

* * *

Afternoon: I’m in the British Library when the softly-spoken, floppy-haired man at the desk next to me asks if I used to live in Bristol. ‘It’s Dickon, isn’t it?’ He turns out to be James, one of the regulars at various Bristol indie gigs and club nights, back in what must now be termed My Bristol Years (1990-4). He can’t have seen me for over twenty years.

I do remember him, and have one particularly vivid memory from a mainstream indie disco night (the Candy Club, we think). James asked the DJ to play Felt, knowing full well the answer would be no. This completely ordinary moment, ten seconds of my history, has nevertheless stuck with me down the decades. I think it’s because it was the first time I’d heard of a band called Felt, and the name intrigued me. Years later I would get to know Lawrence the Felt singer, for a brief time. I still have a letter from him praising the Orlando album.

James and I have lunch in the BL café and compare the last two decades of our lives. We two ageing indie boys. He moved into the vintage Mod scenes in London and in Europe, and missed Britpop altogether (quite a feat, really). Fearing the ‘memory test’ aspect of such meetings (which is what I imagine school reunions must be like), I am consoled when he can’t remember the same things I can’t remember either. Like the name of a windowless record shop in Clifton, where the owner would unleash lengthy anecdotes about seeing Scritti Politti in 1980, or The Specials on their first tour. Today James does literary translation work (he’s editing an anthology of literature in a rare Spanish-related tongue), and I tell him about Birkbeck. Neither of us owns the old records any more, the ones that brought us together. But we talk about them all the same.

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A Noted Woman Of Noise

Friday 23rd May 2014. The results of the local elections are in. My ward’s three seats (Highgate ward, in Haringey) all went to the Lib Dems, just as they’ve done for decades.  But it’s a more impressive feat this time, given the party’s current lack of popularity nationally. A post-election map of Haringey usually has a block of red to the east (for Labour, where the wards are poorer, such as Tottenham), with a block of yellow to the west (for the Liberals, where the wards are wealthier, such as Crouch End and Highgate).

Today the block of red is still in place, but the block of yellow is covered in grey. The western wards’ council seats have been split between different parties. Only one ward has remained yellow: my own Highgate.

So low is the Lib Dems’ popularity nationally that their leader, the aspartame-like Mr Clegg, is fighting off calls to resign. But around my street, they could set fire to kittens. They’d still get on the council.

(That said, in the 2012 mayoral election, my ward chose the Tories’ Boris Johnson over the Lib Dems’ Brian Paddick. The unconvincing Mr Paddick must have been a loyalty too far.)

Am more pleased by the result a few blocks away, in the other Highgate ward; the bit of Highgate that falls under the boundary of Camden Council. Camden’s only Green Party seat is there, now retained by Sian Berry. The three Lib Dem candidates all came last. It’s a very London feeling: the reverse of anything only a few streets away.

* * *

I’m walking through the reception of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, Gordon Square, when one of the porters calls out, ‘Thanks for the mention in your diary!’ This is Bernie, who retrieved my lost sheet of essay notes the other week. ‘I don’t know where you find the time to write it,’ he adds. I blurt out something about it being a hobby. Like indoor rock climbing, only more strenuous.

* * *

Saturday 24th May 2014. I’m reading All She Wanted (1996) by Aphrodite Jones, lent to me by Becky Boston. It’s a ‘true crime’ book about the Brandon Teena case, the story which was then turned into the Hilary Swank film, Boys Don’t Cry. According to Ms Jones, there’s no evidence that the name ‘Brandon Teena’ was properly adopted by Brandon himself, despite its usage in the film, and in Ms Swank’s Oscar acceptance speech, and indeed on Wikipedia today.

What is definite is that at the time of his murder, Brandon was living as just that, ‘Brandon’. He tried to avoid referring to the ‘Teena’ on his official ID whenever possible, sometimes pronouncing it as the more male-sounding ‘Tenna’, but only when questioned. So my feeling now is that it might be more respectful to refer to him as ‘T.R. Brandon’, or as the one-word name of ‘Brandon’, a la Morrissey. Still, ‘Brandon Teena’ at least signifies maleness, and that’s the main thing.

* * *

Sunday 25th May 2014. I stay up and watch the European Parliament election results come in. The UK map turns UKIP purple. It’s the first national election for about a century where the triumphant party is neither Conservative nor Labour. This is meant to signify an ‘earthquake’ in British politics, but in fact 65% of the electorate didn’t use their vote at all. It’s a landslide for indifference.

In order to feel less depressed, I tell myself the purple bits on the election maps are really a victory for Barney The Purple Dinosaur. The children’s TV character, who just wants to hug everyone.

Still, the Greens have added a third MEP to their two. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, only just hang onto to one.

* * *

Tuesday 27th May 2014. To the ICA to see the film Exhibition (£3). The screening is packed. This is rather apt, as it’s such an ICA-compatible film that it even has a scene set in the ICA cinema. In a dream sequence, Ms Albertine is seen attending a Q&A there, in which she is both onstage being interviewed, and in the audience watching herself. If there’s an award for Most Arthouse Film Moment In An Arthouse Film, that has to be a strong contender.

Exhibition, as the name suggests, is an arthouse film about actual artists and their actual house. The musician Viv Albertine plays a Cindy Sherman type, all performance and props and use of her body, while Liam Gillick (an artist in real life) plays her live-in partner, who does something unfathomable involving computers. Tom Hiddleston also pops up briefly as an estate agent, in a film that couldn’t be further from The Avengers and the Thor films if it tried.

Apart from the ICA scene, the main location is the couple’s modernist-style Kensington home, one with sliding panel walls, plate glass windows and polished wooden floors, the kind that forces visitors to take their shoes off on entering. For the most part, the film is the house: a minimal story in minimalist architecture. The soundtrack delights in ambient noises – footsteps on floors, doors opening and closing somewhere out of view, making the house into a speaking character.

The irony about Ms Albertine’s character is that her art may be about exhibiting her body, but she herself is withdrawn and non-communicative. Before the film begins, there’s a trailer for a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the American punk singer. The trailer is stuffed full of women’s noise and women’s voices. Viv Albertine is a punk rock woman too, being the guitarist in The Slits. Yet you’d never know it from her performance in Exhibition. A noted woman of noise, steeped so entirely in silence.

* * *

Wednesday 28th May 2014. I sit in the Barbican centre, reading. Opposite me is a group of young students playing about, possibly drama students on a trip. More girls than boys. They must be over twenty years younger than me, but I recognise certain types that existed when I was their age, and which presumably will always exist. There’s the class clown – stealing girls’ bags and running around with them (‘Kevin!’). After that he sits down and plays that slapping game with one of the girls. It’s the game with the hands pressed together as if in prayer, daring the other to move first (what was that? did I ever do it?). Another girl is doing kung-fu kicks in the air. Two more slide down the bannisters.

Then there’s the class Casanova, a confident boy with perfect stubble who seems to be holding a girl on each knee. And the class Ophelia, a hippyish girl who sits on the ground far too quickly – despite the filthy carpet  and the perfectly good spare seats. There’s also a butch girl in a black t-shirt and Trilby hat, marching about purposefully with a hand-rolled cigarette in her lips, looking for somewhere to smoke.

Then I notice them staring at me staring at them, and I move. To use their slang, observational diarists are the worst.

* * *

I am invited by Shanthi S to the Genesis cinema in Whitechapel, there to see Fading Gigolo. The cinema is so cheap – £3.50 for a new mainstream film on Mondays and Wednesdays. So we use the money saved to have an equally cheap meal at a Chinese restaurant, a few doors along the Mile End Road. Shanthi brings her friend Rosie, who runs a vintage clothes stall. She loved Under The Skin, not least because, like Scarlett Johansson, she too is a woman who drives a large van around. Full of vintage clothes, rather than naked Scotsmen, though.

Fading Gigolo is written and directed by John Turturro, who stars in it alongside Woody Allen. The story is very unlikely – Mr Turturro is an escort for various glamorous women – and it doesn’t quite hold its funny bits together with its more serious bits – Vanessa Paradis as a widow, whose depression is healed by Mr Turtorro. But the funny bits are very funny indeed, most of them given to Mr Allen.

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Thursday 29th May 2014. To the Birkbeck student bar in Torrington Square, for end-of-year drinks with some fellow students: Elton, Finola, Ralph, Tim, Kerensa. The bar’s on the fourth floor, and we go outside onto the open-air terrace. Though the sun’s out, we have to use several piles of napkins to mop up the rainwater from the chairs. I seem to be the only English student present to not have done the Milton module, which the others all rave about. Three years as a literature student, and I still am no closer to feeling well-read. Always more to read. Always more to feel behind about.

* * *

Friday 30th May 2014. I finish reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The passages on drink and hangovers are superb, as are the sudden fantasies of violence against those who irritate. But it’s not quite the comedic experience I was hoping for. Perhaps because I have little sympathy with a teacher who hates teaching – I feel more for the students whom he lets down. And yet I’m keen to read more Amis, for the prose style and the wit, if not for the cruel characters.

I also want to know more about Michel, Professor Welch’s effeminate writer son with ‘long pale hair’, who only appears right at the end. In the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, David Lodge comes close to apologising for Amis’s treatment of women, saying the character of Margaret would effectively have her own story told by the next generation of female authors. But I want to read Michel Welch’s story too.

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