Do I Sound Tough?

Saturday 21st March 2015.

I bump into Ms Hayley Campbell on the tube back to Highgate. ‘Hey neighbour!’ Her father, the comics artist Eddie Campbell – of From Hell fame – has just moved to the area. I go into local knowledge mode, and tell her about the Boogaloo and Highgate Wood, the area where the early Pink Floyd rehearsed, and the place where the second Suede album was written. I should do walking tours, really.

Hayley C now writes books about Neil Gaiman and articles for the Buzzfeed website. Buzzfeed is becoming quite a success story – from being a colourful, youthful web magazine full of ‘list-icles’ – articles based around lists – and now branching into serious news journalism, holding interviews with Prime Ministers and so forth. But their speciality is still their list-format stories, usually illustrated with animated gifs. I ask Ms H whether ‘gif’ is pronounced ‘jiff’ or ‘Giff’ at Buzzfeed. The latter. Hard G.

I finish studying Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, for my dissertation on camp. A complete pleasure: well-crafted and concentrated prose, clever symbolism, social satire, a good sense of London locations (especially the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath) and moments of camp comedy tucked within the Henry James-style sobriety; hence my thesis. He writes parties so well, too – up there with Fitzgerald and Waugh. I re-watch the 2005 TV adaptation on DVD, with Dan Stevens in pre-Downton mode. It’s nicely written and acted, but I find the 80s hair and fashions are not quite garish enough – Mr Stevens just has tastefully big hair, rather than the bouffant he should have.

The other shortcoming is common to screen adaptations: the loss of the third-person narration. In the book, you have detailed access to the protagonist’s thoughts. In the TV version, all Dan S can do is stand around, looking like he’s thinking something. First person narrators transfer fine for some dramas – like Jeremy Irons talking over most of Brideshead Revisited – it’s just third person narrators that rarely work.

* * *

Sunday 22nd March 2015.

I convince myself that I can’t continue doing any work until I’ve bought a book stand, the kind that can hold a paperback open at one page. Browsing for one in Foyles and Ryman uses up most of my afternoon.

* * *

Monday 23rd March 2015.

I’ve fallen a week behind my proposed schedule for the dissertation, but find that sheer panic helps me speed up. One troublesome chapter is finished for good today – I don’t let myself stop until it is.

* * *

Tuesday 24th March 2015.

1000 words added to the dissertation. Half the chapter on Hollinghurst. Spend some time considering whether to quote the Sebastian Faulks introduction to a new edition – The Line of Beauty is now a Picador Classic, only eleven years after publication. Faulks calls it ‘a comic novel about mostly shallow people’, which isn’t quite true. Nothing comic about the final section.

* * *

Wednesday 25th March 2015.

Another 1000 words, finishing the bulk of the thing. 10,972 words and counting. Still have the conclusion and the introduction to do (one must always do those last). A small problem for a project with a maximum word count of 8800, but for me it’s a personal milestone: the first time I’ve written over 10,000 words of any one piece, ever. Quite a thrill to see the Microsoft Word odometer clock over into five figures. First of many, let’s hope.

* * *

 Thursday 26th March 2015.

Morning: I write all of the conclusion and half of the introduction. I have two possible candidates for a main title, to prefix the subtitle of ‘Subversive Uses of Camp In Twenty-First Century Fiction’. One is poetic and serious – ‘The Self-Aware Surface’, one is arch and jokey – ‘A Wink and a Pair of Claws’. I ask a few friends on Facebook, then decide to go for the serious one. I compromise by keeping the ‘Wink’ title for a chapter heading. Humour can be so subjective, and probably should be avoided in analytical, academic essays (seminars can be fun, though). As it is, I’m quite proud of calling camp ‘the self-aware surface’, and want to give the phrase something of a spotlight.

Afternoon: to BFI Flare, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the BFI Southbank. The rebranding of the LLGFF makes sense – it was beginning to sound dusty and out-of-date, to the point where it nearly closed down a few years ago. ‘Flare’ as a word sounds less worthy, more inclusive and forward-looking: it suggests a signal being shot into the sky – ‘we exist too’.

The film I’ve chosen is Do I Sound Gay?, a personal documentary by the Brooklyn-based writer, David Thorpe. It explores his dislike of his own voice, which he thinks sounds too gay – by which he really means effeminate. He interviews his old school friends, who remind him that he picked up the voice after coming out at college. So in his case it was acquired organically, in the same way some people pick up different regional accents when they move (I’m thinking of Hugh Laurie’s current US twang in his English accent). Mr Thorpe goes in for speech therapy (without much success), and discovers one theory of ‘the gay male accent’ – that it’s based on a combination of admiring women, as learned from mothers and sisters and screen idols, and on admiring notions of aristocratic European behaviour – notions of ‘queenliness’. All to define an identity that signifies as different from the average US man.

Of course, this only applies to those to whom it applies, and Mr Thorpe is careful to include examples of gay men with ‘straight’ voices, and straight men with effeminate voices. David Sedaris and George Takei appear, both contributing thoughtful insights, and giving very honest accounts of their personal lives. It’s worth seeing the documentary for these sections alone.

I think in Britain the idea of manliness in voices is a lot less of a concern, partly because America rules the world, and so cares more about how things appear to others. But also because the US suspects the British accent for having aspects of effeminacy anyway.

In the final scene of the film, Mr Thorpe interviews a group of young gay men on a beach. He asks them if they think he sounds gay. They chorus back as one: ‘Hell, yes!’

At the time I think, ‘that’s a very American reply’. Hours later I watch the latest pre-election TV interviews. Jeremy Paxman, rude as ever, asks Ed Miliband if he’s ‘tough enough’ for the job of prime minister. ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough!’ says Miliband. Though he does stammer it.

After the film, there’s a Q&A with the director. One audience member asks if Mr Thorpe has heard of Polari, the gay language of 40s and 50s Britain. ‘Yes I have,’ he replies. ‘Thanks to Morrissey’.

* * *

Early evening: with Anna S, Senay S and friends, to the Museum of Comedy. This is in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, and turns out be one largish room, plus a performance space for live comedy nights. The current exhibition is a rare early 80s photo shoot of The Comic Strip – featuring a young Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders and so on. The permanent collection includes Max Miller’s patchwork dressing gown, Steptoe & Son’s stuffed bear, Irene Handl’s belt in a bell jar, and a huge amount of old books, videos and vinyl records, which visitors are invited to peruse or play at their leisure.

There’s framed transcripts of classic comedy sketches on the wall, with the Python ‘Silly Walks’ skit signed by John Cleese. ‘I’ve never found Monty Python funny’, says one of our party.

I forget that even comedy that has been proven to be funny for so many, and for so long, can still be considered unfunny by someone.

And I think to myself, ‘definitely don’t go with the funny thesis title’.

* * *

Friday 27th March 2015.

First draft finished. 12,373 words. Now I have to decide which 4,000 words needn’t have been written in the first place.


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St Rutger’s Day

Saturday 14th March 2015.

To the Hat and Tun pub in Farringdon, for Laura M’s birthday. Ms M and her friends favour vintage clothing, and this hired room suits them to a tee: Victorian décor, wood panelling, sofas, animal trophies on the wall, a fireplace, and it’s located deep in Oliver Twist territory, off Saffron Hill.

In the 1840s this area would have exemplified all those Dickens TV adaptations: noisy and muddy alleys, street hawkers, drunks in doorways, child prostitutes, horse dung, the poorest of the poor. Saffron Hill’s atmosphere is now closer to that of the financial district around the City: streets silent and empty, the buildings a mix of expensive flats and offices. All nightlife firmly confined to the inside of pleasant bars like this one.

At the party, there’ s lots of people in steampunk-compatible attire. A few corsets, some of them worn by men. I chat to a lady who is a practitioner of Bartitsu, the Victorian form of martial arts. It appears in the Sherlock Holmes stories. What might seem like a whimsical hobby can turn out to be very handy. She tells me how a couple of days ago, she used her skills to fend off a mugger in a rail station.

* * *

Sunday 15th March 2015.

To the ICA for the latest Gregg Araki film, White Bird In A Blizzard. Like a lot of arthouse films, it’s taken a year or so to find its way onto London screens. The young heroine is played by the likeable Shailene Woodley, who has since gone on to be something of a mainstream superstar.

I’m a big fan of Mr Araki’s work, particularly Mysterious Skin and Splendour. His last film, Kaboom!, about love among college students, slinks along prettily enough before the story turns absolutely insane in the last twenty minutes – and the world literally explodes. Don’t ask.

His trademarks tend to be tales of youthful and rebellious sexuality (often with a bisexual edge), with dream-like close-ups of faces, the framing of objects in the dead centre of the screen, and a soundtrack that favours British alternative rock. Just as Ms Sophia Coppola claimed custody of My Bloody Valentine for Lost In Translation, Mr Araki seems to have first dibs on Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins: White Bird comes with a brand new Guthrie soundtrack. On top of that there’s hit singles by Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, the Cure, the Pet Shop Boys and the Jesus and Mary Chain. But there’s also a lesser-known Soft Cell b-side, ‘It’s A Mug’s Game’, one of my favourite 80s tracks full stop. This is an eight minutes-long upbeat synth tune, where Marc Almond rants in a half-sung, half-spoken style about the pitfalls of teenage life. It goes from gritty angst into uproarious humour: to get back at his dad, Almond’s character tells himself to ‘play your records so loud / all the ones that he especially hates /Deep Purple in Rock, Led Zeppelin II /Well, even you hate those!’

White Bird In A Blizzard concerns the disappearance of the main character’s mother, played by Eva Green in a highly mannered and campy style, almost as if she’s channelling Joan Crawford. Young Ms Woodley’s acting style, meanwhile, is pure twenty-first century naturalism, even though she’s been forced to wear Joy Division t-shirts and lie around pretending to enjoy Depeche Mode.

(This is unfair. There’s plenty of young people in 2015 who love 1980s music. La Roux, for one, whose records the BBC have insisted on restricting to the older-age station Radio 2, rather than the teen-orientated Radio 1. So she is officially a young person who makes music that is too old for her. Liking the Human League is now the equivalent of liking Bach)

So this film has two female leads speaking to each other in completely contrasting acting styles, post-war Hollywood and contemporary, while both are in an 1980s setting. I’m still not sure what this film actually is, but it’s different, and it’s art. And I like the songs.

* * *

Monday 16th March 2015.

Latest line in my thesis: ‘Masculinity isn’t for every man’.

* * *

Tuesday 17th March 2015.

St Patrick’s Day seems bigger than ever. I look in at the windows of bars in Bloomsbury. If I see a group of men wearing those spongy top hats, meant to resemble a pint of Guinness, I choose not to enter. It’s like Santa hats at Christmas. I find them stomach-churningly tacky.

I suppose these hats must be absolutely hilarious to the wearers – they certainly seem to be having a jolly time. But if people must walk around as unpaid adverts for Guinness, I’d much rather they emulated those 1980s TV adverts, the ones with Rutger Hauer. These were surreal vignettes where the Blade Runner actor would saunter around, vaguely dressed as a pint of the black stuff. White-blond hair atop a set of dark clothes, including a dashing black coat. He looked handsome, even cool. Why can’t people walk around dressed like that on St Patrick’s Day?

Class at Birkbeck: Philip Roth’s excellent Plot Against America. I had no idea about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism in the 30s – nor Henry Ford’s.

* * *

Wednesday 18th March 2015.

Last class of the spring term at Birkbeck. Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, from the 70s. Still seems very bold and fresh today: freewheeling, imaginative, apocalyptic feminism. Only Margaret Atwood comes close, but she doesn’t have Carter’s giddy abandon. And, yes, nerve. Nerve is underrated.

* * *

To the Odeon Camden Town with Ms Shanthi, for a more conventional woman’s story: Still Alice. Julianne Moore is deserving of her Oscar, but then she’s experienced in the Woman Has A Terrible Time stakes. Not least in Safe. More unexpected is the performance of Kristen Stewart. She nearly steals the film as the surly, defensive daughter who turns out to be better suited to caring than the rest of the family. The Twilight films made young Ms Stewart rich enough to do whatever she wants, forever. So for her to do her best performance in a film about Alzheimer’s is a commendable use of her celebrity.

Thousands of ‘K-Stew’ fans around the world will see this film purely because she’s in it. That can only be a good thing. As Terry Pratchett pointed out, one factor in the history of incurable diseases becoming curable is the simple raising of awareness. Still Alice may be fairly ordinary as a film, but if it inspires young people to choose careers where they help the afflicted, or help to find a cure, it has value enough.

* * *

Friday 20th March 2015.

Thinking today about the way social media gives disproportionate power to throwaway remarks, I come across a follow-up to the Dorothy Parker quip about Katharine Hepburn. In the 1930s, Ms Parker was quoted as saying that Ms Hepburn ‘ran the gamut of emotions from A to… B’.

Some years later, though, she told a friend, Garson Kanin, that she regarded Ms H as a fine actress.

‘Are you saying that that ‘A to B’ quip wasn’t yours, then?’ said Kanin. ‘Or do you think she’s improved?’

‘Oh, I said it all right. You know how it is. A joke. When people expect you to say things, you say things. Isn’t that the way it is?’

Thus Dorothy Parker predicted Twitter.

 (source: Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, via the blog QuoteInvestigator.com)


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The American Way Of Shame

Saturday 7th March 2015.

An article in the Guardian profiles Ed Miliband on the campaign trail. With his second-class train travel and his unexpected love of snooker, he finally comes across a real person, even likeable, rather than as a collection of learned PR tactics. Though that too is a PR tactic. It’s like Hollywood giving Debbie Reynolds the image of the girl next door. As the old joke goes, the secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Meanwhile the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, has reached a higher plateau of public visibility. A professional look-a-likes company has added a Natalie B impersonator to its books. Success of a kind.

* * *

Monday 9th March 2015.

In the evening: to Birkbeck’s Keynes Library for an event about postgraduate courses.

The difference between BAs and MAs is reflected in the racks of leaflets available in the Gordon Square lobby. The BA leaflets are A4 and bright pink, suggesting the courses are cute, childlike, even huggy. The leaflets for the MA courses, meanwhile, are A5 and battleship grey. It implies they’re all about increased concentration, seriousness, no waste, no mucking about.

What throws me for six is that tonight I find out that applications for MA bursaries, as in grants to fund a Master’s this autumn, have to be in by the end of April. Which means applying for the course itself earlier than that.

So much of my week is spent worrying about MAs, which I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do until the summer. The funding alone seems to be a complete minefield: it’s not helped by ‘part-fee waiver’ bursaries, which don’t actually tell you the sum you are applying for. As with so much of modern life now, getting paid at all is meant to be a delightful surprise.

Many bursaries seem to be outrageously narrow in their requirements: ‘Applicable only for students from Tanzania, with a first class degree, who are looking to do an MA in Postal Museum Management. In Hull. Must love dogs.’

* * *

Tuesday 10th March 2015.

Still worrying about what to do with myself after the degree. I ask some friends. Some say it’s better to go straight into an MA, others recommend taking a year off. Some think I should get a job alongside it, to cover the inevitable shortfall in funding. Though no one has said what job.

Still, they pretty much all agree that academia is something I should pursue in the long run. It is, after all, the one thing in my recent life where I’ve actually been a success (if an unpaid one).

The question now is: which MA course, which institution, and when? This autumn, or defer to the year after that? And should I stay in London or look further afield?

My answer today is, pathetically, I don’t know. My mind is too full of the dissertation and the remaining BA essays to think about anything else. I’ve spent a few cursory hours looking courses up, but nothing yet takes my interest.

However, I have at least applied to do a Birkbeck MA that does leap out at me: Contemporary Literature and Culture. Whatever happens, it’ll be good to have that set up as an option for this autumn. I don’t have to formally commit until then.

* * *

Tonight I start to fill out the huge online MA application form. It’s one of those with Mandatory Asterisks of Doom, where the page won’t let you proceed until you enter something in a box. This one wants me to upload my GCSE certificates, as they are still my most recent formal qualifications. The BA’s not done yet, and I never took A-levels.

I never feel that a set of dusty acronyms acquired decades ago have any bearing on a much-changed person today. I’m not even the same person I was at the beginning of this sentence, frankly.  And that’s not flimsiness, that’s evolution. No, really.

* * *

Wednesday 11th March 2015.

Reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  A fascinating and copiously-researched work, which asks if social media has brought about an atavistic return to public executions, if figurative ones. Certainly, there’s been an almost daily occurrence of stories in the UK news, where someone has had to apologise for something they said on the internet. But many of the people in this book aren’t politicians or public figures, merely members of the public who were crucified online after posting ill-advised tweets.

I think it’s significant that the majority of Mr R’s subjects are American. Americans do shame so much bigger and better than the British. The way the people in the book react when speaking to Mr R is often acutely emotional and over-the-top: a touch of the Hollywoods. One talks about his shame being ‘radioactive’ – that it might be catching. He is called ‘tainted’ by other Americans.

The British, meanwhile, are far more circumspect with their shame. They secretly think it’s shameful to be British at all.

I wonder if the book’s long list of acknowledgments is Jon R’s safeguard against not falling into the trap of two of his subjects: journalists caught fabricating the truth in their work. I’m reminded of the case of Johann Hari, the crusading Independent journalist who was found to have made up quotes, and was soon shamed out of his job, albeit in a quieter, British way.

But Jon Ronson’s style is very different to Hari’s: he questions his own reactions at every stage, and keeps the tone (mostly) compassionate, rather than judgemental. If anything is being shamed in his book, it’s not people, but the internet.

 

* * *

Thursday 12th March 2015.

Tea at the Wolseley with Lawrence Gullo and Fyodor Pavlov, visiting from NYC. Also present: the cabaret artiste Vicky Butterfly and my rock musician neighbour, David R-P. Fyodor is Russian, and gives David and myself a huge bag of Russian sweets. Some are chocolates, some are wafers, some are mini versions of Penguin biscuits, and some are boiled sweets.

The sweet wrappers have Cyrillic script alongside different baffling images: swans, masquerade masks, scary doll-like children in headscarves, and lobsters.

Haven’t been to the ornate Wolseley in years. Delighted to see that their straightforward Cream Tea is still affordable, at £10.75 for a plate of scones, jam and cream, and a pot of tea, with refills. Cheap classiness – very me.

The discussion turns to aging. Learned today: Crispin Gray, the guitarist of the early 90s band Daisy Chainsaw, and currently in The Dogbones, is a descendant of the Victorian poet John Gray. As in the rumoured inspiration for Wilde’s Dorian. Fittingly, Crispin doesn’t seem to have aged since 1991.

* * *

Friday 13th March 2015.

I fear I am developing a brioche habit.


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The Baileys Defence

Sunday 1st March 2015.

Living in London, one gets a regular stream of takeaway menus put through the letterbox. Today’s is unusual. A menu for Monsoon, an Indian takeaway in Tufnell Park. It comes with two quotes of endorsement by none other than Ed Miliband. No mention of bacon sandwiches.

* * *

Monday 2nd March 2015.

Alan Bennett reads a provocative mini-essay for Radio 4, on the subject of English hypocrisy. What’s most striking is that he ends it saying, ‘before you stampede for the Basildon Bond or rather skitter for the Twitter I must say that I don’t exempt myself from these strictures.’

That Alan Bennett – Alan Bennett! – is aware of Twitter means the world really has changed. I hope he doesn’t get his own account: it wouldn’t suit him at all. Though there are other veteran writers whose absence from Twitter is a blessing to the nervous systems of all. Martin Amis would not fare well.

* * *

Wednesday 4th March 2015.

In the post today are a couple of contributor copies of A London Year, the anthology of diary entries about the capital. After previously existing as a giant door-stopper of a hardback, it’s now been turned into a rather cute and compact paperback (out March 19th). The potted biographies of each contributor have been elided to save space, but I rather like that.

If I really have to explain who I am, I like ‘diarist’, if only because it’s the one thing I’ve kept doing for the longest time. ‘Mature student’ isn’t an identity, though it’s what I am technically up to at the moment. ‘DJ’ isn’t something I do very often, while ‘indie band songwriter and musician’ is who I used to be. One silver lining of Orlando and Fosca not being hugely successful is that I don’t have to feel defined by them. Music divides as much as it attracts. I like to feel that an admirer of this diary doesn’t need to be a fan of those records – indeed they might well enjoy the diary and detest the music – or just not be interested in those styles of music. One of the great things about prose is that the reader can bring their own soundtrack.

And now I’m thinking of Anthony Burgess, forever grumbling that the world never let his classical music career get off the ground, so he had to take up prose. And then his grumbling further, that people would only remember him for A Clockwork Orange. And then only because it inspired someone else’s film. ‘Best known for’ is a phrase that curdles the stomach.

Ideally, one would just put out the material and let the reader decide how to receive it. Except that’s impractical: one needs filters and signposts.

* * *

Thursday 5th March 2015.

I re-watch Imagine Me & You, a 2005 Richard Curtis-y British romcom about a newly-wed young woman in Primrose Hill falling for a lesbian florist. It seemed very sugary and fluffy and forgettable at the time, but lately I’ve seen it praised by various female film fans on Twitter. Possibly because it stars Lena Headey, who went on to gain something of a following in Game of Thrones. So I look at it again.

I discover that it is so Richard Curtis that it even does his thing of combining unexpectedly explicit sexuality with middle-class English politeness. There’s a scene where two men are caught cottaging on Hampstead Heath, and apologise as if they’re both played by Hugh Grant. They emerge chastely from the bushes, sheepishly doing up their pristine jeans: ‘Sorry!’ ‘Terribly sorry!’ It’s all so idealised, and yet because the actors give it their best, it works. Darren Boyd as the funny best friend gets all the laughs, while Primrose Hill has never look prettier. A lesbian Love Actually, then: sickly for some, sweet for others, plus a nice use of London locations.

* * *

Friday 6th March 2015.

To the Hackney Picturehouse to see Appropriate Behaviour. Given the film concerns the angsty wonderings of an arty young woman in Brooklyn, my choice of venue feels like appropriate behaviour too. Hackney today is, after all, not so dissimilar to that New York district, with its mixture of roughness and fashionability, where club nights often take place in former warehouses, all aluminium ducting and exposed brickwork. In keeping with the East London obsession for new takes on the old, all the seats in the Picturehouse’s Lounge Screen resemble analysts’ couches, built in a permanent recline. So one watches the film while virtually lying down. At first I worry this will prove to be awkward, even painful, but the couches are so deeply cushioned that it turns out to be an entirely comfortable experience. I just have to be careful not to spill my drink on myself.

The main actress, Desiree Akhavan, also wrote and directed the film, giving it a strong sense of 70s Woody Allen: a personal take on New York, via one person’s love life. But where Annie Hall featured Jewish male heterosexual angst, Appropriate Behaviour has Iranian female bisexual angst. And like Love Is Strange, also currently in cinemas, same-sex relations are portrayed as less of an obstacle to happiness per se: what’s more of a problem is the harshness of the property market. So once again there’s several scenes of people boxing up their possessions and moving in with new neighbours. If such scenes are becoming a cliché for city-based romances, it’s because they’re all too true to life.

Bisexuality as an identity does still seem under-represented. It might be argued that to be bisexual now is more unconventional than being gay, because of the way it questions the role of gender. And yet it’s nothing new in cinema: the 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday featured a bisexual young man in London sharing his life with an older man (Peter Finch) as well as a woman (Glenda Jackson). But what complicates Ms Akhavan’s situation is her cultural background: she reminds the audience, chillingly, that Iran is one of the many countries where same-sex relations are still grounds for capital punishment.

Appropriate Behaviour is ultimately a very funny and sharply-written film, and although at the moment it’s being boxed up – like the character’s possessions – as part of a wave of angsty-female urban relationship dramas (along with Frances Ha, The Obvious Child, and anything to do with Lena Dunham), I think it could well become a classic. Certainly, any film that features music by Electrelane, and Leslie Feinberg’s book Stone Butch Blues, is okay by me.

* * *

In the foyer outside, a strange man suddenly hands me four mini-bar bottles of Baileys Irish Cream. He is standing behind a table on which are hundreds of similar bottles. It’s part of some promotion for Baileys, apparently. I suppose the company are trying to suggest that the drink might not be just for Christmas, but also for, well, watching a bisexual Iranian comedy on a Friday afternoon in March.

I was going to make a joke here about the way alcoholic drinks are gendered. The way Baileys is thought of a ‘female’ drink, and how my own taste for drinks tends to favour the less butch options. A few years ago I went through a slightly intense Bacardi Breezer phase, but we won’t go into that.

Still, there is a serious side to the image of Baileys, which happens to tie in with one of the themes in Appropriate Behaviour. Last year, a human rights lawyer in Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal, revealed how men there were being jailed for displaying signs of effeminacy in public.

From the Independent, 12 September 2014:  ‘In one instance, a client of Mr Togue’s was convicted for his feminine mannerisms and drinking Baileys Irish Cream – a choice which the judge felt was a woman’s drink.’ 

So as I sit here, swigging my free miniature bottles of Baileys, I like to think I am making a protest against the homophobic laws of Cameroon. Yes, that’s what it is.


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You Do Not Sound Like A Pleasant Person

Saturday 21st February 2015.

Late morning, at home. I receive a phone call.

Me: Hello?

Him: (pause, heavy foreign accent) Hello sir. I am from Microsoft. Your computer has been identified as vulnerable to hackers, so we are phoning to help you solve the problem.

ME: Riiiiight…

Him: Now can I ask you, what make is your computer?

Me: (wary pause) How do I know this isn’t a scam call?

Him: (sudden anger) How do I know you’re not a scam call? You do not sound like a pleasant person.

Me: Which one of us is going to hang up first?

(pause)

Me: What are you wearing?

Him: I am going to call the police.

Me: You’re calling the police?

Him: Wait half an hour. You will receive a call.

Me: I’m going to be arrested over the phone?

Him: (Hangs up).

(I do, in fact, wait by the phone for half an hour. But it doesn’t ring. Men!)

After a quick Google, I discover that the ‘Microsoft Phone Scam’ is quite common. Which makes my caller’s ease with which he gave up and broke character all the more strange.

‘Are you a scam?’ must surely be a frequently asked question for a scammer. Yet it completely threw him. All he could do was blurt out whatever piqued gibberish came into his head. No Best Actress award for him.

I wonder if one gets the scammers one deserves.

* * *

Evening: to the Barrowboy & Banker pub in London Bridge, for my brother Tom’s 40th birthday drinks. We stay till closing time at 11pm. As we huddle outside, a drunken young man among the other drinkers comes over, suddenly fascinated with my appearance. ‘When did you dye your hair?’ he asks. Not ‘why’, ‘when’.  As with the scam caller, I do seem to bring out nonsensical responses in strange men.

I offer him some minimum-risk answers, but he won’t leave me alone. He fires off comment after comment about my blondness. There is clearly a menacing and intimidating side to his ‘banter’, of course. So I’m relieved when Ewan, Tom’s friend, who is much braver than me, suddenly jumps in and thrusts his hairless pate into the young man’s face. ‘OR!’ Ewan shouts, ‘You could be BALD!’ And the lad is frightened off.

The realisation that at the age of 43 I can attract the same sort of Alpha-Lad attention that I had when I was a teenager, leads me to two responses.

I can either think: ‘I am doomed to always be one of the Not-We.’

Or I can think: ‘Still got it.’

* * *

Monday 23rd February 2015.

‘I enjoy reading on paper and screen equally, but I do cherish the way print doesn’t suddenly open up mid-page, to try and sell you a Volvo.’

This is an idle thought I had after reading an article about print versus e-books. Today I put it on Twitter, thinking it to be a mildly entertaining point. Within hours it becomes my most popular Tweet to date. By Friday it receives 602 Retweets (as in people passing the tweet on through their own accounts), and 453 Faves (people marking that they like it). Although this is by no means ‘viral’, for me it is something new. To send a quip into the world and see it take purchase in the minds of hundreds of strangers is an undoubtedly pleasing experience. While I realise that all it takes to be Big On Twitter is to circulate photographs of inadvertently amusing kittens (or as this week proves, ambiguously coloured dresses), I am nevertheless buoyed up by this spike of mass connection. There may be hope for me yet.

* * *

Another scam today. This time, a paper letter in the mail. First class postage too – they must have a budget. This one’s known as the ‘SmartStamp Inheritance Scam’, and has been going for years. The letter spins some tale of a relative dying in China and leaving me – just me!all their money. No address or phone number, not even an official ­letterhead; just an email address. I reply: ‘Dear Sir, how wonderful that you have found my long lost relative! You’re not one of those naughty scams, are you? China indeed! The last I heard of Great Uncle Charles, he was convalescing at ‘Dun Twerking’, Power Bottom, Wilts. What are you wearing?’ No reply yet.

* * *

Tuesday 24th February 2015.

Class at Birkbeck: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, as part of the ‘American Century’ course (mostly literature, but with a few humanities texts like this one). More defensive prefaces. This time Obama adds a 2004 introduction, pointing out how he wrote the book in the mid-90s, when he was a law teacher. Certainly his admittance to taking drugs at college is not the sort of thing a budding President is meant to publish, and his refusal to censor that section does him credit. It’s well written, though his ventriloquism of other people is a device I’m not keen on – it suggests a perfect memory of dialogues heard decades ago. This particularly falls down when he inserts ‘bleeding’ into the utterances of an English passenger, whom he meets on a plane. A touch of the Dick Van Dykes, there. Still, his drive to find the good in complex situations seems heartfelt enough. I also enjoy his details of growing up in Hawaii, finding them just as interesting as his pilgrimage to Kenya.

* * *

Wednesday 25th February 2015.

Have written 5058 words for the 8000 word project, not including the footnotes. On schedule so far.

Birkbeck class: a lecture by Roger Luckhurst on 1970s culture. When I get home, I’m fired up enough to re-watch the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and The Fury. What shocks the most is the footage of uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets, and the attendant dead rats. I also realise that I now know where one of the enraged council busybodies in the archive footage gets his insults from. In an interview he refers to the Sex Pistols as ‘a band that would be enormously improved by death’. This is, in fact, a direct steal from a Saki short story, ‘The Feast of Nemesis’ (1914). Actually, given his often daring content, Saki was a kind of Edwardian punk rocker too.

* * *

Thursday 26th February 2015.

Two pieces of good news from Birkbeck. I have my last meeting with my project supervisor, Jo Winning. She’s read my draft so far and is happy with it. Very much relieved to hear this. I’d cranked up the theory side of it since our last meeting, and was worried that I was just adding theory for the sake of it. Theory has to power the work, rather than sit on top of it like an afterthought.

In the cooking up of essays, theory must always be the spice, and never the garnish.

The other news is that I receive the grade for my essay about post-war resentment in Waugh, Wyndham and Amis. A mark of 80: my fifth High First Class. It’s also worth 50% of that particular module. So after a slightly shaky start to the final year, I’m feeling a lot more confident once again.

* * *

Evening: to the ICA for Citizenfour, which won the Oscar this week for Best Feature-Length Documentary. It’s the background story of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing against the NSA, which emerged during the summer of 2013. The most chilling moment is not the revelations about governments spying on their populaces. It’s when Snowden becomes the big news story worldwide, and he is shown watching this news, while in his Hong Kong hotel room. In fictional films this is something of a cliché: a character turns on the news, and the story they hear has direct relevance to the plot. But this is real. Snowden is also a fascinating figure to watch: completely calm, articulate, careful with his words, and searingly aware of how serious it all is.

* * *

Friday 27th February 2015.

To the Prince Charles Cinema to see another Oscar winner: the Polish film Ida, which took the Best Foreign Language Film this week. Made in the tradition of 60s European arthouse: black and white, square ratio, yet the credits include ‘digital effects’. Presumably the highly subtle sort. The story is frustrating – not quite enough information as to what’s happening, characters speaking in detached, brief, unreal ways. But the photography is stunning – one can imagine the film being pored over by students for years to come. The main actress’s face has a unique air of cinematic stillness one sees so rarely – Tilda Swinton has it, as does the lead in The Colour of Pomegranates. A kind of serene remoteness.

I walk through Leicester Square. One of the megaphone-wielding street preachers is quick off the mark with his topicality, adapting today’s internet talking point, about an ambiguously coloured dress. On his placard is written: ‘What colours do you see on this dress? White and gold, or black and blue? The answer is JESUS.’


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Oh, Those Queasy Undergraduates

Saturday 14th February 2015. Valentine’s day. I suppose, Eeyore-like, that one silver lining of an uncoupled life is that it means fewer obligations in the calendar. Today, the occasion seeks to invade spaces far beyond its agreed diocese of coupledom. Now, it infects Tube tannoy announcements. ‘This train is for Kennington via Bank,’ goes an announcer today, before adding: ‘And it’s Valentine’s Day, so make sure you appreciate the loved ones in your life’. I spend most of the journey trying to decide if this is charming, or a threat. It’s certainly out of character: taciturn misery is what one holds dear about the London Underground.

Still, what I do like are the Quotes Of The Day that now appear on the whiteboards in station entrances. Partly because they’re handwritten, often displaying a Tube staffer’s flair for calligraphy. But also because they’re silent.

Leicester Square is dominated by a gigantic hoarding for the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, playing at the square’s main Odeon. I walk through to Charing Cross Road, and see that one of the sex shop windows is offering Fifty Shades-themed intimate accessories, proudly labelled as official merchandise for this naughty film. I suppose it makes a change from school lunchboxes.

* * *

Sunday 15th February 2015. Over 4000 words clocked up so far on the project, not including the footnotes. Past the halfway mark.

I prefer the term ‘project’ to ‘dissertation’, though they’re technically interchangeable. ‘Dissertation’ sounds obscure, dreary, a chore. ‘Project’ sounds open, hopeful, even useful.

But I also can’t think of the word ‘dissertation’, without hearing it said by Steve Coogan’s stand-up character from early 1990s TV; the intoxicated, staggering, can-swigging Mancunian, Paul Calf. ‘Bloody STEW-dents… doing their dissss-er-TAY-shuns…paying for a bag of chips… with a cheque!

There is nothing new in students being mocked full stop, though. ‘Undergraduate’ has long been a pejorative term off-campus. It’s often used to suggest something with pretensions of cleverness, something that is ill-thought-out and fatally jejune. Complainants to Radio 4 refer to ‘undergraduate humour’, when castigating a new sketch show. It doesn’t help that the word is similar to ‘underwhelming’, and indeed, ‘underpants’.

My favourite usage is in Virginia Woolf’s diaries for 1922, where she berates a book for being written as if ‘by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. The book in question is Ulysses.

* * *

Tuesday 17th February 2015. With Fenella H to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, for the exhibition The Institute of Sexology. Most of the visitors are female. Plenty of men on display, of course, not least Mr Freud, and Mr Kinsey, in his statutory sexologist bow tie. In fact, I wonder if sexologists eschewed long neckties because of Mr Freud.

I’m pleased to have an assumption shattered – that an exhibition on the history of sexual research has to be very serious.  I’d heard there’s a museum of erotica somewhere (Italy, I think) where sniggering gets you thrown out. But here there’s a Woody Allen clip, the discussion on ‘orgasmatrons’ from Sleeper. There’s also a witty 1980s video sketch, spoofing Clause 28, as performed by Neil Bartlett. It’s more subtle and angry than Sleeper, but it’s still very funny.

Class at Birkbeck: The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich. A tale of Native American families, with touches of magical realism and mythology. I find it lacks a sense of momentum, at least on a first read, but there’s an excellent and amusing section narrated by a dog, ‘Almost Soup’. If in doubt, send in a funny dog.

* * *

Wednesday 18th February 2015. Class at Birkbeck: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. I had no idea it was much more than just a historical novel; that it subtly filters its Victorian melodrama through an anachronistic 1960s perspective, with clever digressions on the meaning of fiction. I especially enjoy the reference to ‘the egregious McLuhan’ when explaining why a character owns no books.

 

* * *

Thursday 19th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Love is Strange. This is a tender-hearted drama about two older gay men in New York getting married. John Lithgow is a retired 70-something, while Alfred Molina is a fifty-something music teacher at a Catholic school. Or at least he is until news of the wedding reaches his employer. There’s an excellent moment early on when, after dismissing Mr Molina in his office, the head priest asks him to stop and pray with him before leaving. He is worried that Mr M might now lose his faith, given it has lost him his job. ‘I still regard Christ as my saviour,’ replies Molina, ‘But I don’t think I can pray with you any more.’  What’s remarkable is that there aren’t any more references to his Catholicism after this – it’s as much a matter-of-fact aspect of his life as his homosexuality. Many other films would make that the main issue of the story.

What the film is really about, though, is the present cruelty of metropolitan housing markets; arguably a far more pressing issue now, more than religion or sexuality. Without Mr Molina’s job, the newly-weds are forced to sell their flat and stay separately with New York relatives and friends, until they can find somewhere affordable. They could move out of town, but they’ve become as emotionally attached to the city as they have to each other. There’s also the suggestion – quite an honest one – that a long-standing gay couple used to the city might feel uneasy about relocating to a small town community. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears may have been the toast of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, but would Poughkeepsie, upstate NY (to give the film’s example) be quite so tolerant?  Thus Love is Strange is ultimately about the way relationships can become strained, both with beloved people and beloved places. I do wonder how it’ll play in Poughkeepsie cinemas, though.

* * *

Friday 20th February 2015. To Soho Radio in Great Windmill Street, where I’m a guest for the second time on my brother Tom’s show. I burble on about the way some rock genres have changing statuses over time. ‘Shoegazing’ was once a music press insult for a group of early 90s UK indie bands, all of whom made a dreamy, fuzzy racket with their guitars while staring intently at their footwear. Not because the shoes in question were particularly interesting, but because ‘showmanship’ was a dirty word. Even looking up through one’s fringe, to make the slightest eye contact with the audience, was tantamount to artistic death. Come the more heads-up, personality-based era of Britpop in the mid 90s, such bands found themselves out of time, and soon split up. Today, the likes of Swervedriver, Ride, and Slowdive have quietly reformed to capitalize on what seems to be a ‘shoegazing heritage’, where their records have found a sizeable new audience, particularly in the US. Like an indie version of the Quakers’ story, the Shoegazers turned an insult into an identity.

* * *

I sit and do some studying in The Old Café, on the first floor of the old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road. The café is independent, friendly, cheap, and pleasingly ramshackle, in contrast to the new Foyles café proper, which is designed to within an inch of its life. As it is, the new Foyles café is often packed, while today The Old Café is virtually empty. A new place to meet up with friends in central London, then, and proof that the bohemian side of Soho is not yet dead.


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The Universal Oop

Sunday 8th February 2015. To the Barbican Centre cinema for Shaun the Sheep: The Movie. Though its official title appears to be Shaun The Sheep – Movie. I wonder if that elision of a second ‘the’ is something to do with the film’s lack of words on the soundtrack. There is no dialogue throughout, only animal grunts, sheep baas, and human mumbling. Not quite a silent movie, but not a talkie either. A third term is needed: perhaps a ‘gruntie’ (not to be confused with Mr Turner, which is a talkie with a lot of grunts). I also thought about The Plank, the Eric Sykes slapstick film of old, where people nearly speak to each other, but not quite.

A lot of interaction among the English is a series of awkward grunts anyway. The most common sound in public buildings and on Tube trains is not ‘excuse me’, or ‘morning!’ but ‘oop!’, whenever a collision of bodies is avoided. Not the plural-sounding ‘oops’, as The Beano would have it. No, adding that final ‘s’ is an effort too far. It is the singular: ‘oop’. The Universal Oop, the true sound of British society.

One reason I chose to see this film, given it is mostly aimed at small children, was that I’d spent the previous week studying American Psycho and The Atrocity Exhibition. After that, I badly needed to see a film in which nothing remotely unpleasant happens to anyone.

It’s fair to say that Shaun the Sheep is not the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Having said that, it does have little references to Breaking Bad and Silence of the Lambs, somewhat unexpectedly. Actually, the film has a better claim to the title Silence of the Lambs full stop: it literally has lambs being silent.

Another reason for going was that the Barbican was screening it at 8.30pm on a school night. Not only at that time – that would be silly – but the fact there was a grown-up-friendly time slot indicated that I wouldn’t be the only adult there. As it turned out, all the audience were adults. Pensioners, young couples, groups of friends, and no children in sight.

For some reason I imagine the couples in the audience being fans of Belle and Sebastian. I once watched that band in the 90s, all the time standing behind a young woman who was wearing a Shaun the Sheep backpack. Indeed, the new film makes a reference to those popular backpacks too – it’s a very clever and very, dare I say it, metatextual detail.

Like many Aardman films, the animation is cosy yet state-of-the-art, the story is fast and silly, and there’s a constant parade of reliably tried-and-tested jokes alongside some inspired and even outrageous ones. Just the idea of a cockerel distracted by its iPhone is enough to win me over. Pure fun.

* * *

Wednesday 11th February 2015. I read an article by Eva Wiseman on the use of ‘quirky’ as a pejorative and patronising term. I think one problem is that the word literally contains ‘irk’. The same thing has happened to ‘winsome’, because it contains ‘wince’.

* * *

I receive the Gatsby essay back. Grade: 78. Highest one of the final year so far, higher than any marks in my first two years, and my thirteenth First in a row. Very pleased, as my marks before then had taken something of a dip. Less than three months to go.

* * *

Thursday 12th February 2015. Meet with Mum in Primrose Hill,  then we go to Leighton House in Kensington for A Victorian Obsession, an exhibition of rarely displayed nineteenth-century paintings. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s huge and decadent Roses of Heliogabalus gets a sensory chamber all to itself, where a Jo Malone scent of roses is pumped into the air.

Afterwards: a short bus ride to the Natural History Museum, for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. The gallery is darkened, with each photograph backlit on glass. So many startling images: some microscopic, some dangerous, some disturbing. Favourite photo: a flock of lime green parakeets flying over a London cemetery at dusk.

I use the newly expanded ticket hall at Tottenham Court Road tube station. Gone are the Paolozzi murals over the escalator arches. The new parts of the station are a mass of white tiled walls, high ceilings and wide corridors, unusually free of adverts (so far), and punctuated only with black Northern Line markings. New spaciousness also means new soullessness, but then it’s still unfinished: the Central Line sections are not open for another ten months. The Crossrail section, meanwhile, is still years away, and remains the reason why that corner of Soho is still at the mercy of a tangle of building sites. Something lost, something gained: the eternal London tale.

* * *

Friday 13th February 2015. With Heather Malone to the Jacksons Lane Community Centre, two blocks away from my room. The JLCC seems much the same as ever – an entirely unfranchised café, friendly staff, and a proper theatre space with raked seating. We are there to see Psychodermabrasion, a solo stage show by Matthew Floyd Jones. I’ve seen him before in the cabaret duo Frisky & Mannish, but this is rather different: an unusual musical-cum-monologue made up of film projections, multi-layered backing tracks, and live performance, on the theme of how anxiety over skin conditions can affect relationships. This show has some input from Dickie Beau, and it shares DB’s style of a live performer as a kind of reactive pawn amid carefully-sequenced recordings.  Matthew FJ spends much of the show zipped up in two layers of skin suits, hiding his face. This works powerfully enough, but once the inevitable unveiling happens, the show doesn’t quite move onto another level, and it feels like it should. Still, there’s lots of originality: Dear John letters sung in a barber shop quartet style, skin suits revealed on a rack, smartphone messages presented as the voice of a nagging, amorphous God. Somewhat ironically, for a show that comments on the ubiquity of smartphones, someone in the row ahead of me is checking their email while they show is going on, as if the real life performance in front of them was just another website to flick through.

It’s good to see Heather M in person, whom I’ve not seen for years. She was in danger of becoming one of those friends whose life I only knew at one digital remove. Too easily, people one knows can become passing clouds on social media, suggesting a paraphrasing of Gatsby:

So we tap on, swipes against the current, scrolling back ceaselessly into the past…

When I meet up with friends now, it seems all the more important to hug them, or shake their hand. Not just out of affection, but as a shoring against the digital.


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In The Argot Of Perversity

Saturday 31st January 2015. This week’s work: finally making a start on the first draft of my 8000 word dissertation (or ‘final year project’) about literary camp. I’ve been researching it on and off since last summer, resulting in a satisfyingly fat pile of notes to dominate my desk for the next few weeks. The project is due in on April 20th, but I have to send a 2000 word extract to the supervisor, Dr Jo Winning, by February 16th.

‘Don’t make it a survey’, she’s advised. That’s often the problem with writing about camp. So many essays do just that: from Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’ onwards, they often get drawn into making lists: this is camp, that isn’t. It’s an approach that’s not dissimilar to the current ‘listicle’ trend brought about by the website Buzzfeed: articles as lists of things rather than proper analysis. The trouble is, as the success of Buzzfeed has proved, lists are so very seductive. Something cheap and quick about them. No hard work for the reader.

I’ve found that the best single volume on the subject is Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject – A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto. His own name sounds like a shout of camp approval (‘How fab-io, Cleto!’). This academic doorstopper includes an extract from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, now considered to be the most essential book on gender theory in the last thirty years. Frustratingly, Ms Butler omits to mention the c-word, despite discussing drag queens and taking her title from Female Trouble, the highly camp 1970s film by John Waters. Perhaps she avoids any mention of camp because it’s just such a slippery term. And as Mr Cleto says, so many critics on camp are ‘babel-like, disagreement reigning’.

Thanks to Mr Cleto I’ve confirmed what seems to be the first appearance of the word ‘camp’ in printed journalism, as opposed to dictionaries of slang. It’s in the April 1922 issue of the New Orleans literary magazine The Double Dealer, in an article by Carl Van Vechten. He uses it in championing the work of (perhaps unsurprisingly) Ronald Firbank. The article is written in camp terms itself:

‘…and such dialogue! In the argot of perversity, one would call it “camping”… Sophisticated virgins and demi-puceaux [which I think means ‘semi-virgins’] will adore these books’.

I have to use the British Library’s microfilm machines at St Pancras to look this dusty article up. You have to run a spool of black film through a clunky projector-stroke-magnifier. Sometimes one hears the phrase ‘everything’s on the internet now’. Not yet.

The first appearance of the term ‘camp’ in fiction, meanwhile, according to both Cleto and the OED, seems to be in a 1933 novel by Maurice Lincoln, Oh! Definitely! I’ve just taken a copy out from The London Library, last borrowed in 1987. A lisping butler called Dennis is described first as a ‘fairy’ and then later as acting ‘slight more “camp”’ than usual’.

* * *

Sunday 1st February 2015. The British Library’s exhibition on all things Gothic has closed. I ask the shop staff which items of tie-in merchandise sold the most. Answer: skull-themed shot glasses.

* * *

Tuesday 3rd February 2015. Morning: snow in London at last. It lasts all of four hours.

Evening: class at Birkbeck on Ellis’s American Psycho. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. When I read it last summer there were moments where I actively thought, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’. Such is the graphic nature of the violence. But once the shock of the Psycho has faded, the American part becomes more interesting. It’s an excellent representation of the late 80s yuppie boom, the sense of capitalism out of control for good (which hasn’t let up since), and the grim nihilism of consumer culture full stop. Novels are meant to encourage empathy, but American Psycho only encourages empathy for those utterly incapable of empathy.

It’s disturbing how Patrick Bateman’s face is so popular online, as played by Christian Bale in the film version. Still, it was the same with Clockwork Orange: a critique of violence taking on a cake-and-eat-it effect. Any passionate criticism is really an act of love, because of the passion. And villains always were more fun than heroes: in the medieval Mystery Plays, everyone wanted to be the Devil.

* * *

Wednesday 4th February 2015. Class with Roger Luckhurst on Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition. More violence and general unkindness. I’m grateful for the chance to finally read AE (if it’s possible to properly ‘read’ a series of cut-up fragments and repetitive scenarios), and I admire it so much that I might well write my essay on it. Nevertheless, I now feel the need to read something fluffy, where nothing remotely unseemly happens to anyone.

* * *

Friday 6th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Ex Machina (a mere £5 with NUS). A quiet, minimal sci-fi production in the mode of Moon, it concerns a newly-created robot woman kept in a remote compound, who is put through a series of interrogations by Domhnall Gleeson from Frank and About Time. There’s also the robot’s alcoholic inventor played by Oscar Isaac from The Two Faces of January. He is so good in the role, I’m convinced a scene in which he disco-dances is cut short purely to stop him stealing the film.

Thematically, it’s quite close to those recent Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flicks, which all did different takes on ‘Woman As The Other’ (Her, Under The Skin, Lucy). I also thought of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In from a few years earlier, with another constructed woman kept as a plaything. Ex Machina suffers in comparison with the Almodovar, at least when it comes to saying daring things about gender and sexuality. The film seems to favour Oscar Isaac’s glib remark: ‘Why give a robot sexuality? Because it’s fun.’ So all the interesting philosophical talk soon gives way to a more standard cat-and-mouse thriller. Still, it’s beautiful to look at and indeed to listen to, with the cogs of the semi-transparent robot  whirring delicately under her dialogue.


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How Big To Make The Bear

Saturday 24th January 2015. A favourite track for starting the day – and for tackling most things – is Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place. It soothes with a slight smirk: a camp calmative.

* * *

Sunday 25th January 2015. Woolf’s birthday, much quotes of hers doing the rounds. Have been thinking about this one, given I’ve been reading a lot about reality and realism:

‘I haven’t that reality gift […] distrusting reality, its cheapness’. Diary, 19 June 1923.

* * *

Monday 26th January 2015. I watch the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited. Its two hours can’t compete with the eleven hours of the 1980s TV series, and there’s an inevitable skipping and skimming over aspects of the story which really need room to breathe. But it gives the world Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, an interpretation that makes the character vulnerable and kittenish, which in turn makes me realise how outgoing and puppyish Anthony Andrews is in the TV series. Both takes are perfectly valid: after all, critics have been arguing over the character since 1945.

The film also turns up the bisexuality aspect, moving Hayley Atwell’s Julia into scenes she wasn’t anywhere near in the novel. At one point Michael Gambon (as Lord Marchmain) faces Matthew Goode (who plays Charles Ryder), while extending his arms around Sebastian and Julia. He then says: ‘There must be many temptations for you here’. Quite.

And how apt it is now, that Ben Whishaw would go from carrying around a teddy bear, to providing the voice of Paddington. Whishaw’s teddy in Brideshead is a lot smaller than Anthony Andrews’s, though it suits his more wary performance. Perhaps that’s the first question anyone adapting Brideshead should ask themselves: how big to make the bear.

* * *

Tuesday 27th January 2015. Class on Don DeLillo’s 80s novel, White Noise. It’s my first encounter with Mr DeLillo. Very witty, without being wisecracking. Fascinating how a fear of over-consumption of information was a concern even in the 1980s. The wry scene about The Most Photographed Barn In America seems a thousand times more relevant now, in this age of the selfie-stick.

We discuss postmodernism and Thomas Pynchon. Or as he might be described, The Least Photographed Man In America.

My favourite quote from White Noise:

‘Eating is the only form of professionalism most people ever attain.’

* * *

Wednesday 28th January 2015. The Natural History Museum announces that it will remove ‘Dippy’, the diplodocus skeleton, from its main hall, having been installed there since 1979 – just before my own first visits there as a child. The choice for its replacement is fair enough, though: the huge blue whale skeleton, whose effect in the tucked-away Whale Hall has always tended to be diminished by having the 1930s plaster model of the same creature hanging alongside it. The model was later found to be biologically inaccurate, while ‘Dippy’ is only a plaster cast itself (something I didn’t know until today), so having a genuine whale skeleton as the first sight for visitors makes sense. But for me the main attraction of the Hall is really the hall itself: Waterhouse’s Romanesque architecture, with the terracotta arches and staircases, the painted ceiling panels, and the intricate animal sculptures carved into the stone.

Class at Birkbeck: Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. That this class occurs in the same week as the DeLillo is exactly the kind of coincidence that either author would relish. Both sessions include looking at the same quotes on postmodernism from Frederic Jameson. One theme of White Noise is deja vu.

* **

Thursday 29th January 2015. To the ICA for Beyond Clueless. This is a fascinating film-length essay as opposed to a documentary, made up entirely of clips from (slightly) old films, edited together and narrated over to make its points. The films under discussion are from 1994 to 2006, and are all chosen for what they have to say about American teenagers. The film’s thesis – as written by its British director, Charlie Tyne – is that Clueless marked the beginning of a new style of teenager, in the same way that John Hughes’s films (like The Breakfast Club) helped to define teenagers for the 80s. This new wave, as it were, focussed on the viciousness of power cliques, the need to conform and rebel at the same time, troubled forms of sexuality, and out-of-control instincts. Most of the choices are high school comedies and dramas (Mean Girls, The Girl Next Door, She’s All That, and the now rather shockingly titled Slap Her She’s French), but there’s also a few teen horror films (Ginger Snaps, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands) art house adaptations (The Rules of Attraction), and films that have become cult classics in their own right (The Craft). They’ve all had their pop song soundtracks stripped away and replaced with a new uniform score, while the narration is by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk.

It’s more about depictions of teenage identity than it is about the films themselves, but one has the pleasure of seeing them in a fresh context. Along the way it insists that Jeepers Creepers and Eurotrip are about repressed homosexuality, while 13 Going On 30 is pernicious anti-feminist propaganda. I’m not sure I agree in all three cases, but the arguments are entertaining in themselves. To me it feels a bit like one of those Adam Curtis films, except with more footage of Freddie Prinze Jr moping about in school corridors. A slight shortcoming is that it sometimes undermines its own thesis in order to just show random montages cut to music (so exactly like Adam Curtis then, ho ho). But otherwise it’s worth seeking out. I now have an urge to re-watch Cruel Intentions.

* * *

Friday 30th January 2015.  It’s about time I recorded my gratitude to Esther Ranson, the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator. Over the past three and a half years, Ms R has not only answered my many queries about the nuts-and-bolts side of the degree course, but she has invariably done so with swiftness and in clear, calming and perfectly-written messages. Today I send her a rather meandering question about thesis word counts, which (typically) I’d been getting upset about for hours. I finally realise I should just ask Esther R about it. So I do so, and she replies within ten minutes. She gives me the precise answer I wanted, uses references to official guidelines to back it up, and makes me feel that my mind has been put at rest on the matter. I imagine she has to deal with a constant barrage of similar queries all day, both from students and staff, yet her replies never show any sign of being rushed. It’s another form of lesson.


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Rehouse Your Darlings

Saturday 17th January 2015. Today’s discovery: Michael Bond’s 2001 afterword to A Bear Called Paddington (as in the first Paddington book, from 1958) includes a reference to Gertrude Stein. And he didn’t mean to write a children’s book – the stories just came out that way.

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Sunday 18th January 2015. First draft of the essay on post-war fiction done. Only 650 words over the limit. ‘Kill your darlings’ goes the adage. I still prefer my own version: ‘Write rococo, edit baroque’. By which I mean, cut out the indulgent stuff – but not if it turns out to have a kind of imposing beauty.

When cutting down a piece to fit a word count, I’ve found it’s a good idea to write a quick summary of the piece in synopsis form. Just the bare bones of what each paragraph actually does. After that, you can usually see which paragraphs should be cut and which ones should be merged together. Particularly if two paragraphs are saying the same thing.

Another tip that’s worked for me over the years is to have a separate offcuts file for each piece. You can then cut and paste the deleted sections of your piece into this separate file, and save it. That lances the ‘darlings’ feeling. The beloved paragraphs are still alive, just gone to a different home. Like kittens. Rehouse your darlings.

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Monday 19th January 2015. Wrote the second draft of the essay. Had to cut out the bits about whether it’s fair that Lucky Jim has been accused of sexism (in the character of Margaret Peel) and homophobia (in the treatment of Michel Welch). I have the same view on Amis as I do on Evelyn Waugh: the writer has some objectionable views, but the work redeems him.

The Angry Young Men of the 1950s now seem more reactionary than revolutionary. Women and gay intellectuals came in for their sneering just as much as the privileged classes. Properly angry people want to change the system, whereas the hero of Lucky Jim’s entire philosophy is that ‘nice things are better than nasty ones’. He just wants a pretty wife and a decently paid job where he feels vaguely happy – the system itself is fine. A better description for Kingsley Amis’s gang would be Resentful Young Men.

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Tuesday 20th January 2015. Birkbeck class in Gordon Square: Apocalypse Now, as in the late 70s film on the Vietnam war. Although my overall degree is in English Literature, this Tuesday course on ‘The American Century’ has a wider humanities side to it. So there’s a few films and non-fiction texts to study, alongside lots of novels. Any course that can go from Henry James to the Batman film The Dark Knight is fine with me.

As it is, I’d not seen Apocalypse Now until, well, now. The sheer organic chaos of it stays with me. Saving Private Ryan, to give an example of another big war film, has a very strict three-act structure (opening battle, quest, final battle). Despite the carnage of the Omaha beach scenes, there’s still a sense that Spielberg’s film is carefully controlled. Not so with Apocalypse Now. Copolla’s film feels more like it’s running away with itself and can’t remember who’s in charge – much like the Vietnam war itself. All the usual rules about sympathetic heroes and moral cores are completely thrown away. I don’t think I like it much, but I admire it. At its heart is the old problem, still to be solved: men resorting to violence just because they can. The horror, indeed.

Wrote the third draft of the essay.

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Wednesday 21st January 2015. Birkbeck class: A Clockwork Orange, as in the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. He says that Burgess’s reputation is currently in a sort of dip; something that often happens to authors in the twenty years or so immediately after their death. I remember his autobiography Little Wilson And Big God coming out in 1986, and its publication being hyped as an important literary event. Right now, A Clockwork Orange remains a classic, but his umpteen other works rarely get much of a look-in. This is despite Burgess spending most of the rest of his life grumbling about how he’d written much better books. The Kubrick film was partly to blame; no film of Earthly Powers any time soon.

Learned from reading A Clockwork Orange: the bowler hat and white boiler suit costume is not in the book; that’s entirely Kubrick. The use of the invented ‘nadsat’ slang is hard going at times, and not really convincing. Young people have always used new slang, but not to the point of it resembling a full language. Just the occasional word. But I think one phrase used by real teens today has the ring of Burgess about it: ‘oh my days’.

One student in the class is Russian. She confirms that much of Burgess’s invented words are based on the Russian language, but that it still doesn’t make the book any easier to read.

I’m slightly surprised to find that one of the favourite texts with the other students has been Brideshead Revisited. Despite its world of upper-class English privilege, and its author’s snobbery, it still makes new fans from all kinds of backgrounds – my class is fairly diverse, ethnically and nationally. I think I forget that it’s not the poshness that gives Waugh’s novel its appeal as much as the well-drawn characters and the air of an addictive and blissful world, hermetically sealed from the real one. In terms of escapism, Brideshead has much in common with Game of Thrones. 

Fourth draft done.

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Thursday 22nd January 2015. Wrote the fifth draft of the essay. Still not entirely happy, so I do a sixth. More or less happy with that. Uploaded it to the college website, and that’s that. From now till May it’s all about the 7000 word thesis, plus two final essays.

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After two days of articles celebrating the apparent end of The Sun’s Page 3, the newspaper brings it back. The tone of this is: ‘fooled you!’ Like boys in the playground crossing their fingers when they make promises.

Even in the 1980s Page 3 seemed like a cheesy hangover from the 1970s. The problem is that the people behind The Sun think that Page 3 is like Carry On Nurse – cheeky, populist, and harmless. In fact it’s more like Carry On Emmanuelle - anachronistic, grim, and doing no favours to anyone involved. It’s still staggering how some people cry ‘free speech’ while ignoring such obvious qualifiers as context, power structures, role models, and the way some free speech gets to shout louder than others. Despite all the debates, The Sun still sees a serious issue about gender roles as an opportunity for goading female politicians and writers.

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Friday 23rd January 2015.  To the East Phoenix Finchley, to see Into The Woods, the new film version of the 1980s Sondheim musical. Starry cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt (in unexpectedly fine voice), and Chris Pine off the new Star Trek films as a Mills & Boon prince. James Corden okay – but like many British comedians in American films there’s a feeling that he’s not fully allowed off the leash.

The stage show is not one of my favourite Sondheims, but I like some of the songs – ‘Agony’, ‘No One Is Alone’, ‘Children Will Listen’. I’ve also always admired the clever lyric about the cow, sung in the film by Tracey Ullman: ‘We’ve no time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her’. The film feels a bit saggy after the first hour, but then this is often a problem with musicals that have been adapted from stage to screen. The Rocky Horror Picture Show for one. I wonder if it’s due to a lack of interval. After so much singing, even a film needs a chance to pause, get its breath back, and go to the bar.


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