The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment

Tuesday 24 October 2017. I read an speech by Ali Smith on the present importance of the novel. ‘We’re all exiles, and the novel is one of our homes’. She quotes Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight (1937), on the immigrant experience: ‘The roofs that you see are not built for you’.

The trouble is, London’s new roofs are not built for many of the natives, either. I stare up at ‘FiftySevenEast’, the soaring new block by Dalston Kingsland station. I wonder what sort of people will live there. Anyone who badly needs a home full stop, like the growing number of beggars around the station? Anyone who’s lived in London for years? Anyone at all?

**

Wednesday 25 October 2017. An update to my earlier entry. I remembered how computer printer paper once came as ugly perforated scrolls, with dots along the sides and mysterious green stripes throughout. I’m now informed that this paper was commonly used to print tables of numbers, so each line was more readable when the alternate lines were striped green. Contrary to Genesis, in the beginning was the number.

I definitely recall seeing literary manuscripts on this sort of paper in the past. It’s so easy to forget about old ways which are not quite so old. Typewriters and Tippex did not graduate directly to today’s A4 print outs, but it somehow feels that they did.

Spend late morning and early afternoon in the London Library. Richard Canning’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Firbank’s Vainglory crams an impressive amount of research into a small space. I’m also fascinated that Professor Canning once performed in an Oxford student comedy team, the Seven Raymonds, along with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. There’s a connection there in terms of trying to do humour in a modernist way; Stewart Lee’s jazz-like repetition of whole phrases isn’t so far from Gertrude Stein.

I surprise myself by hitting this week’s PhD goal in terms of word count. And it’s only Wednesday. Then again, I did the same on the MA in the final weeks: hitting a state of despair at falling behind, but then following it with an intense burst of speeding up. New bouts of energy and concentration suddenly arrive, but from where? The reservoir of sheer panic, one supposes.

Evening: To Gordon Square for a seminar on writing abstracts for academic conferences. I’m given lots of feedback on my own tentative attempt at an abstract. It’s for a forthcoming conference in the nearby Senate House Library, on ‘Queer Publishing’. One thing I’ve noticed is that some professional scholars seem to submit clumsily written abstracts, confident that their name will get them included regardless. It’s difficult to imagine Zizek being unsuccessful with a submission. Academia, like everywhere else, has its celebrities. The subtext of this being, obviously, that I’d quite like to be one myself.

**

Thursday 26 October 2017. A Boots optician’s bill for £260. And that’s with the student discount. This is for ‘varifocal’ lenses. It seems my eyesight has taken a turn for the worse. The cheap option is carry two pairs of spectacles everywhere, one for reading, one for distance. Or I can fork out for the all-in-one varifocals. I don’t have a spare £260. What to do? Develop a squint?

Evening: To Gordon Square for two seminars. One is on critical theory, specifically Franco Moretti’s rather subjective but intriguing Graphs, Maps, Trees. Then there’s a lecture by the theatre scholar Aiofe Monks, on theatrical ‘virtuosity’ in relation to ‘bad art’.

We’re shown a video of a Michael Flatley show, in which the Irish dancer stages an interpretation of the Easter Rising through the medium of tap dance. It’s like the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ scene in The Producers, except that Flatley’s audience are cheering and applauding. My own audience, being PhDs in a classroom that once was Virginia Woolf’s house, are culturally rather closer to the Producers audience. We may not be shocked about the tastelessness, but we’re wincing and trying our best not to giggle.

This is one of the points of Dr Monks’s lecture. Being not just a scholar of theatrical forms but Irish herself, she talks about being a schoolgirl and watching Flatley’s star-making moment on TV in the early 90s, as in the ‘Riverdance’ interval act in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Back then, she says, this single TV appearance engendered a communal feeling of excitement for lovers of Irish culture and Irish dance the world over. Previously the dance style was purely amateur: now, overnight, it was professional, respected, and visible for the whole world.

But later on, and after gaining her education, Dr M went to see one of Mr Flatley’s Las Vegas-style shows, and found them trashy, ridiculous, even hilarious. Technically he’s impressive: no one would deny that he dances extremely well. It’s just everything else that irks: the corny production and the garish choice of themes. Such shows are, to an academic critic or to anyone possessing what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’, demonstrably Bad Art.

Except, of course, it’s also Successful Art, and that’s the problem for scholars. How can one explain why more fans of Irishness buy Michael Flatley tickets than they do copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s the same dilemma addressed by the critic Carl Wilson in his book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Wilson has to come to terms with the fact that Celine Dion (Bad Art) has sold more albums than most of the albums by the Beatles (Good Art). Wilson is Canadian, like Ms Dion, so there’s a conflict over national pride too.  I imagine that if one’s an expert on Irishness in contemporary theatre, Flatley is the tap-dancing elephant in the room.

I think of Edmund Wilson using the term ‘Bad Art’ to describe HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction in 1945. Lovecraft’s work is now considered to be culturally important and influential. Indeed, Dr M wonders tonight if her problem – and any scholar’s problem – is just one of not enough time having passed. Were Flatley performing in the 1850s, say, his work would be far easier to judge in a cultural and historical context, away from questions of taste and cultural capital and the things that scholars believe are canonically Good or Bad. And one wouldn’t feel such an ugly sense of snobbery. History dissolves snobbery.

**

Saturday 28 October 2017. Trying to catch up with the world of films, I see three in three days. Tonight it’s Daphne at the ICA. This is a low budget drama set in contemporary London, in which a young, red-haired, middle class woman mopes and sulks around the city in a rather nice blue coat. Sometimes she lies on a sofa and reads books by Slavoj Zizek, though she doesn’t know how to pronounce his name properly (and I’m not sure if the makers realise this). There is one plot of sorts, involving Daphne witnessing a stabbing in an off-license, along with another concerning her strained relationship with her mother, as played by Geraldine James. But the whole effect is disconnected and unsatisfying. No theme or plot seems to have been put through even a minimum level of development. It’s as if they’ve accidentally released a collection of first drafts as a finished film. I come away in troubleshooter mode like this, knowing that the film could have been improved, and wondering why it wasn’t. The answer, I suppose, is that the makers were happy with the end product, and that it’s just me. It’s funny how taste can engender loneliness.

**

Sunday 29 October 2017. A delicious veggie brunch at Dalston Superstore with Kath G. It’s nearly Halloween, and the drag queen on the DJ decks has managed to add some zombie make-up to her usual palimpsest of panstick. It’s more accomplished than the common look I saw on the Tube the previous night: people whose costumes solely consisted of half-hearted skull make-up. Hastily scrawled black lines on white faces. The bare, grumpy minimum. ‘Who have you come as? ‘The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment’.

A Twitter game doing the rounds: one calculates one’s ideal Halloween costume by taking one’s own greatest fear and making it into a sexy version. I nominate ‘Sexy Manila Envelope’.

Afternoon: to the Rio for The Ballad of Shirley Collins, a new documentary on the Sussex folk singer, now in her 80s and living in Lewes. She retired some years ago, a move triggered by the strange loss of her voice after the trauma of her husband leaving her (which sounds like a folk song in itself).

This is a very well-made and thoughtful film, and lets its choices of what to see do much of the narration. A case in point is a glimpse at an MBE in a box, made without comment, along with shots of various objects on Ms Collins’s bookshelves and mantelpieces. One object is a box set of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. Because of my interest in Firbank, I tend to think of Mapp and Lucia in the lineage of camp English literature. Benson is more traditional than Firbank, but they share a love of female characters speaking in arch and campy ways. In Shirley Collins’s case, though ,it’s probably the books’ association with Sussex that appeals: Benson’s fictional ‘Trilling’ is based on Rye.

**

Monday 30 October 2017. To the Rio for The Death Of Stalin. The directior is Armando Ianucci, who is now a big enough comedy name to attract other big names: Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs. The presence of Paul Whitehouse as one of the Russian ministers reminds me of a sketch in a recent Harry and Paul special, where Mr Enfield managed to play Alan Bennett as Stalin and Jim Broadbent as a Russian officer. The odd thing about The Death of Stalin is that it seems to be trying to not have a style at all, probably because it’s funded by French investors. The comedy is mainly in the madness of the historical facts and in its broad slapstick, rather than the language. There are little nods to the style of The Thick of It (government staffers swearing a lot), while Jason Isaac’s thick Northern English accent as the head of the Russian army is surely a purely British joke. But otherwise the emphasis is on making a funny film where the humour will translate internationally.

In this way, it’s closer to The Lobster than The Thick of It: a film in English which comes across as translated from a foreign script. I later discover that the source material is a French graphic novel, so that must be at least part of the reason. The film is worth it for the sight of a respected stage actor like Simon Russell Beale ramming his formidable stomach against Steve Buscemi’s, as part of a drunken argument. The scene is slapstick and silly, and well beneath the talents of either actor, but it’s still funny.

**

Tuesday 31st October 2017. Halloween. I welcome the way this utterly American festival – which first seem to percolate over here with the film E.T. – has forced London shops to mercifully put back their Christmas branding until November. However, I have to take a Canute-like stand in one respect: I can’t yet call chocolate bars ‘candy’.

**

Wednesday 1st November 2017. I read the late Peter Hall’s diary entry for this day in 1977. It was his trip to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood. The ceremony seems unchanged from the one  I witnessed in July 2008, for my mother’s MBE. Sir Peter lined up in the same long, unbroken parade of recipients in alphabetical order, all to meet the same royal who stands in the same spot for a full hour and half. The royal is somehow able to say something interesting and special to each one of over a hundred people. In his case it was the Queen Mother, managing this feat in her late seventies. Like me Sir Peter H also records, ungraciously, that ‘we should have been given a drink’.

**

Thursday 2nd November 2017. To Gordon Square for a seminar on bibliographies, followed by a lecture on speech acts in the age of slavery. The seminar refers to Umberto Eco’s 1977 book How To Write A Thesis. Eco’s book now works as a historical reminder of the way things used to be for PhDs, in the days before computers. He advises students to create a bibliography using alphabetical cards kept in a box file, and that they should take such a box with them every time they go to a library. At first it seems easy to scoff at this vision of the bulky awkwardness of the past, but then today’s students are not exactly unburdened either. Laptops are still fairly heavy, and hardback books and thick pads of paper are very much in use. It’s not uncommon to see huge backpacks and wheeled suitcases in a university library. Despite all the advances in digital convenience, people are still physically weighed down by their work. Why isn’t the future easier?

**

Friday 3rd November 2017. With Ms Shanthi to Mangal 2, one of the many likeable and unintimidating Turkish restaurants on the Kingsland Road (I am easily intimidated in restaurants). I’d heard that this is Gilbert and George’s regular haunt, though Shanthi says they only come here on Tuesdays, and that when they do they use the back entrance. O, the mythologies of artists! Minutes after we sit down, in comes the alliterative duo themselves, greyer these days but still very recognisable, the smaller one wearing a furry Russian hat, even though it’s quite mild. Through the front door too. Shanthi glances over at them as we eat, and afterwards swears that they didn’t speak a word to each other throughout.

A younger, long-haired man comes into the restaurant with a paperback ostentatiously protruding from his jeans pocket: Iron John: A Book About Men. Everyone’s discussing the Trouble With Men as it is, what with the news dominated by tales of sexual harassment.

Then to the Rio for a rather more edifying tale of male sexuality. Call Me By Your Name is a sun-kissed, understated film about sexual obsession, set in the Italian countryside in the early 80s (Ms S especially enjoys the use of the Psychedelic Furs). A skinny boy in his late teens becomes attracted to a (very) grown man in his twenties, though the desire is complicated. The younger actor is remarkable. He is devoted to the part not on a tiresomely overdone and ‘actorly’ level, but on a level of focus and diligence which makes one want to work harder oneself.  I suspect everyone who sees this film thinks of two scenes towards the end, one with a long speech from the boy’s father (a character not unlike Umberto Eco), and one based around a phone call which brings me to tears.

**

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Inelegant Acronyms

Thursday 28 September 2017. I must record that on the 20th July I contributed to a pop record. At least, I recorded some backing vocals for Tim Benton, he of the band Baxendale, in a Hornsey studio under a railway bridge. The song was called ‘Wild Swimming’. Mr B invited me to do it out of the blue, and I said yes.

It’s my first contribution to music since I stopped Fosca in 2009. I still have no interest in making new music myself just yet. How funny the way one’s passions wax and wane. Still, one silver lining of my failing to make money from music is that there’s no temptation to play my old songs in concert purely for the money.

My other excuse is a refusal of that common alibi: ‘being in bands was a phase I was going through: I’m more normal now’. I feel I’m more weird now. For now, other boxes await: book-shaped projects, experiments with language, ideas, narrative, the art of words. I look to my award from Birkbeck in 2015, for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’, and feel I owe it to myself to do something along those lines.

**

On a whim, I watch the late 70s Doctor Who serial The Invisible Enemy, with Tom Baker, as rented from iTunes. It’s the one that introduces K9, the robot dog who resembles an upturned wash basin on remote-controlled wheels; very slow wheels at that. And yet the TV-watching children of Britain loved him, and he became a regular character. All the special effects are shockingly primitive, needless to say. Yet there’s a certain cheapskate charm which makes the programme uniquely attractive now, in these glossy days of production values.

I wonder if it’s to do with the dressing-up box aspect: that instinctive need in childhood to tell a quick-moving story using whatever materials are to hand. In the case of The Invisible Enemy, even the story is cheap: a simple fusion of sci-fi cliches. It’s like a small child retelling a film using plastic figures. But there is one unique element: Tom Baker. He was already in a world of his own when he was propping up the bars of 70s Soho. It made perfect sense to cast him as a benign alien; someone who takes on his enemies armed with nothing but nerve.

I think I may have even been introduced to the word ‘bohemian’ in a Target Books description of Baker as the Doctor – I certainly had no interest in the Queen song. Like ‘camp’, I was too young to understand what ‘bohemian’ meant. Though I suspected it sort of meant an adult acting like a child – in a good way.

**

Friday 29 September 2017.  I read Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by the US writer Sarah Manguso. A curious short memoir, fragmentary and poetic. It concerns her keeping a diary over decades, from 1990 till today. Yet she does not quote a word of the actual diary.

From Manguso: ‘I use my landlady’s piano as a writing desk (p. 60)’. I’m starting to look particularly kindly on forty-something writers who live in rented accommodation.

**

Saturday 30 September 2017. I’ve always had clumsy and weak hands, something which has led to a lifelong resentment of cricketers. In recent years though my hands have become oddly worse for short amounts of time. A visit to a glamorous NHS neurologist a couple of years ago ruled out anything sinister. Glamorous, because I later found out that she was a consultant on the big film about Stephen Hawking. I was impressed with this implied proximity to Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, even though I would probably drop it.

No, my condition seems to be a mild but irritating combination of anxiety and dyspraxia, one that makes me into a kind of camp Incredible Hulk. At times of extreme stress, I become more limp-wristed.

I suppose I could blame this condition for my uselessness at DIY jobs. When I moved into the new room I bought a self-assembly bedside table for £15, from the Dalston branch of Argos. I felt right at home there, among the crazy, the shouting, the desperate, and the cheap.

Naturally, when I got the table home it did not lend itself to being assembled at all. And despite my careful scrutiny of the Cy Twombly-like hieroglyphics which the makers had the temerity to call instructions, I managed to nail one of the panels on upside down. The world of manual labour and I continue to look upon each other with mutual suspicion.

**

Sunday 1st October 2017. I’m writing a review of The Sparsholt Affair for the Birkbeck university website. It’s a commission by Joe Brooker for Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature (www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk). I discovered that a couple of the images in the novel are taken from real-life photographs or album sleeves, making my review something of a scoop. It’s my first piece of published academic writing.

**

Monday 2nd October 2017. More work on the Hollinghurst review. I also look over the handbook for the PhD course. I’ve found that whenever I mention I’m doing a PhD, some people have made little noises of mild awe. Indeed, when I did well at my BA a friend said: ‘I should think so too: BAs are for children.’ So I had to do an MA for that reason alone. Halfway through that I found myself increasingly curious about a PhD. If only because PhDs get more privileges in academia: special PC rooms, extra access at college libraries, and the sense of being, well, more grown up. Which for me is truly rare. I wonder how I’ll do.

**

Tuesday 3rd October 2017. I meet Laurence Hughes in the top floor bar of Waterstones Piccadilly. The windowed area has spectacular views of the London skyline, but it also has piped music. Laurence, who is older than me, is more sensitive about piped music. So we plump for the area away from the windows, losing the view but gaining freedom from the music.

I did a little research about this sort of thing for my MA. There’s some sociological evidence that the intolerance of piped music in public spaces increases with age. This is despite the way one’s hearing itself starts to decline – frequencies go missing, hearing aids beckon. One theory is that older people resent the loss of control over public space, which the piped music represents. It’s a glimmer of mortality: you are not in charge of this world after all, chum.

In cafes, the music may be designed to soothe customers, but it’s also designed to possess and impose the brand on a room, and so reminds the customers that they are at the company’s mercy. Younger people tend to mind this sort of thing a lot less, even if it’s other people’s music. The young are more keen to lap up brands, trends, fashionable haircuts, and of course, ideologies.

Perhaps as evidence of my aversion to trendy things, I get the new Ronald Blythe collection of Church Times columns, Forever Wormingford. It’s his last one: he’s retired from doing the weekly column at the age of 94. Calming prose, beautiful little mini-essays on Suffolk life, worthy of a much wider audience than the readers of a Christian newspaper. As in Akenfield, Blythe’s style favours the sudden comparing of moments across decades, or even centuries, presenting life as a palimpsest on all the lives that came and went before. The similarities are always more startling than the differences.

***

Thursday 5th October 2017. My PhD officially begins. Tonight at Gordon Square there’s an induction talk in the Keynes Library by Sue Wiseman, the course director. A handout with a list of all the new students and their projects goes around, and I’m slightly startled to see my name at the top. It’s alphabetical, and unusually for a diverse ‘cohort’ of twenty students, no one has a surname beginning with A, B, C, or D. So there I am at the start. Meaningless, really, but at this stage, with the fear creeping in about how serious it all is, and with my constant inner questions about whether I’ve made a good decision, I’ll take any good omen I can get.

This year’s English and Humanities intake seems a healthy mix: roughly equal genders, all ages, lots of different nationalities, and a good scattering of subject matter from medieval to contemporary, via steampunk, cyberpunk, and graphic novels. One student is doing fairy tales with Marina Warner: the best possible supervisor in the country for that topic. I chat to one student who is also an accomplished poet, Fran Lock.

**

Friday 6th October 2017. Today sees an induction lecture for the wider School of Arts students, as in not just my fellow English and Humanities researchers, but also their counterparts in History of Art, Film and Media, Languages, and The Arts more generally. The lecture is by Marina Warner, and is on curses and entreaties in storytelling.

Beforehand, I’m in St James’s Park looking at some sculptures by Sophie Ryder, which all seem very Marina Warner-esque: nude humans with animal heads dancing with giant dogs, or holding hands in a ring, like an out-take from The Wicker Man.

Spend some time – probably too much – reading about the current online goings on among the ‘alt-right’. Buzzfeed have published a long investigation into email exchanges by various journalists from the conservative website Breitbart, linking them with what appears to be actual white supremacists. The figure at the heart of the story is Milo Yiannopoulos, the British writer who saw a gap in the market left by Christopher Hitchens: a charismatic posh British man spouting opinions on American media despite a complete lack of qualifications. Except that Hitchens was at least more considered in his style: Milo Y is more like a camp internet troll, and one who has stolen my look, frankly.

**

Saturday 7th October 2017. To the Museum of London for a gig by The Fallen Women. It’s part of some sort of mini-festival themed around radical art. Like Joanne Joanne, the all-female tribute band who play Duran Duran songs, the Fallen Women are a mostly female band who play the songs of The Fall: ‘Hit the North’, ‘Victoria’, ‘Mr Pharmacist’, ‘Big New Prinz’ and so forth.

During the gig, three energetic little girls dance unexpectedly down the front. They can’t be older than eight. I presume they’re the untethered children of someone else here, though I like to think they just escaped and are on the run. They are invited onto the stage to do guest vocals on ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. Afterwards, while the band pack up, they ask the guitarist – my friend Charley Stone – if they can use the microphones. Charley points out that they’ve been switched off, because the DJ, Mr Doran from The Quietus, is now playing his set.

‘That doesn’t matter’, says one of the little girls. ‘We just want to show off our girl group moves’. And so they do, posing and dancing with the microphones.

**

Sunday 8th October 2017. I am sent a copy of Travis Elborough’s handsome new anthology, Our History of the 20th Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters. Once again, it includes extracts from my web diary, though just ones from 1997 to 2000. Much of the rest of the book is exclusive material: private diaries never before published. Mr E had asked me if I had kept a paper diary before 1997. I hadn’t, sadly: the novelty of the web format was one of the reasons I started.

At 9am I go to the V&A for Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. After the huge success of the David Bowie exhibition, the V&A have attempted something similar with the band behind Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The show has proven so popular that the museum has added tickets by opening throughout the night too: I could have gone at 4am in the morning.

So what does that say about Pink Floyd? I thought the band had rather more of a niche following than Bowie. In fact, a statistic I learn at the exhibition is that Dark Side alone sells 7000 copies every week, worldwide.

All kinds of theories suggest themselves. I wonder if it’s the band’s reputation for anonymity. Music usually divides people, so a lack of personality might mean there’s less to get in the way, and so less to dislike (one might say the same about Coldplay). Certainly Dark Side of the Moon was all about the ambience promised by the enigmatic sleeve, the triangular prism against the black background. Then there are the subjects of the song titles, which are so basic they must translate easily around the world: ‘Breathe’, ‘Time’, ‘Money’. Hardly niche topics. ‘Hey, I breathe too! I too have heard about money!’

What interests me, and what justifies this exhibition, is that they went through so many different phases, all of which involved highly visual and theatrical elements. One highlight is the row of face masks used in The Wall live show, as worn by a ‘surrogate band’ of extra musicians who open the concert. The idea played on the pitfalls of their own success: the concerts were now such a special-effects spectacle, with exploding jet planes, flying inflatable pigs, film projections, and huge grotesque puppets by Gerald Scarfe, the actual band members were secondary concerns. The mask idea is now rich in irony, given that the bassist Roger Waters, who was the band’s driving force in the 70s, tried to stop the other members using the name ‘Pink Floyd’ without him. He was proved wrong. Or rather, he didn’t listen to his own ideas.

They had one member with star quality, though: Syd Barrett. The band’s first incarnation, the late 1960s line-up with Barrett as frontman, was part of the London psychedelic club scene. Here, the V&A shows many of the gig posters of the time. These illustrated adverts have figures with swirling, distorted proportions rendered in a clear line style, not at all unlike the 1890s work of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it’s thought that the V&A’s 1966 Beardsley show directly influenced such art, and indeed there’s a Beardsley on display. This gives the new exhibition a nice sense of symmetry: echoes of influence returning home.

I take a bus into Piccadilly and get off at St James’s church. In the church grounds is an exhibition of sculptures by Emily Young, once the inspiration for the 60s Pink Floyd song ‘See Emily Play’. Here, one can.

**

Monday 9th October 2017. To the University of Surrey, in Guildford, for a symposium, New Perspectives on Alan Hollinghurst. Three papers are delivered, each speaker neatly representing one of the three academic books on Hollinghurst, all of which suddenly emerged, like buses, in the last few years. This is followed by a public interview with the author himself, tirelessly promoting The Sparsholt Affair. The interview is also in the university, but as part of the Guildford Literary Festival. Unusually, AH doesn’t mention Firbank, so I perk up at the end, mention my PhD, and get him to confirm that he’s writing the introduction for a new Picador edition of The Flower Beneath The Foot. The Sparsholt Affair makes the Top 10 bestseller list: there’s huge posters for it on the Tube.

Surrey university is a proper campus in the American sense: a self-contained town of glossy modernist buildings that takes a long bus ride to get around. I forget how many universities are like this, physically separate and bubble-like, rather than smuggled across a city in public squares and streets like my own, the University of London.

**

Tuesday 10th October 2017. To the Members’ Room in the London Library for an event concerning the second Travis Elborough book out this month, this one co-edited with Helen Gordon, Being A Writer. No one can say that Mr E is a slouch at the practice himself.

It’s a collection of quotes by notable authors: writerly anecdotes mixed with general advice on the craft, and all beautifully designed by the publisher, Frances Lincoln. There’s a quote by David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas one) that reminds me how expensive writing used to be before the net: the era of typewriters and Tippex, of old printers with holes down the side of the paper (which was striped with green for some reason), of bulky manuscripts photocopied and sent in the post. Today it’s harder to earn money from writing, but at least it’s cheaper to actually write.

**

Wednesday 11th October 2017. Evening: to Gordon Square for a meeting by a ‘collective’ of Birkbeck research students. One of the PhDs talks about how she transferred to Birkbeck halfway through her thesis, after her relationship with a supervisor broke down irrevocably. There were no other supervisors in the same field, so she had to move colleges altogether. It’s a good lesson in the importance of having the right supervisor, however good the reputation of the college.

Anyone who looks into doing a PhD usually hears a few horror stories on this subject: supervisors who forget their students even exist; supervisors who don’t reply to emails for months on end and need to be hunted down in the politest possible way; and neglected students who shrug and think they can submit their PhD without the supervisor’s input (and they usually come a cropper). One advantage of sticking with the same college for ‘the triple’ – BA, MA, PhD – is that my supervisor already knows what I’m like.

There’s a London diarist connection here. The definitive edition of Samuel Pepys’s diaries was edited by William Matthews (1905-1975), a specialist in British and American diaries. Matthews did ‘the triple’ at Birkbeck in the 1920s and 30s, before going on to a glittering academic career in the States, hoovering up awards as he went. Birkbeck’s English department honour his memory every year with the annual William Matthews lecture. So I like to think I’m ‘doing a William Matthews’, if only the first bit.

**

Sunday 15th October 2017. To the ‘Esquire Townhouse with Dior’ as it’s officially called. It’s both a pop-up members club and an arts festival, held at the plush building at 10 & 11 Carlton House Terrace, right behind the ICA. I’m here for yet another Alan Hollinghurst event, this time about the ten books that made him who he is. He omits Firbank in favour of, unexpectedly, The Lord of the Rings, which he loved as a teenager. It seems unlikely that AH will venture into writing fantasy novels any time soon. Then again, Kazuo Ishiguro’s last book, The Buried Giant, was just that, and they’ve just given him the Nobel Prize.

I say hello to Martin Wallace, who knows AH. The author himself recognises me from the Guildford talk, and asks me about the scope of my Firbank thesis. When I tell him it’s about the concept of camp modernism, he thinks for a moment then tells me it’s a very worthwhile line of research. I feel officially blessed.

**

Tuesday 17th October 2017. The London Review of Books has an excellent article by Jenny Turner on Kathy Acker, by way of the new biography by Chris Kraus. Ms Acker marketed the ink on her skin as much as she did the ink on her pages. It’s quite a common look now, but her tattoos and piercings were thought to be fairly daring and punkish in the 80s and 90s, even shocking.

As Ms Turner points out, there hadn’t really been a female version of the William Burroughs-style ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’ role before, and there hasn’t really been one since. Jeanette Winterson may have been spiky in her manner when she started out, but she was still part of the literary establishment; one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. According to this article, one of Acker’s books was accidentally printed with the last two chapters the wrong way around, and no one noticed. That’s one definition of the avant-garde.

I note that there’s an advert alongside the Acker piece for Stewart Lee’s current stand-up comedy show. It’s difficult to think of other comedians who might regard the LRB readership as their target audience. And yet I’m reminded that in 1981, when the LRB had photographic covers and a slightly more ‘Time Out’-y approach, they put Alexei Sayle on the front. This was to illustrate an article by the poet Ian Hamilton on the alternative comedy scene.

Since then the magazine hasn’t expected its readers to take much of an interest in comedy. I know this because in 2011, one LRB piece quoted a joke from Peep Show, but had to qualify this as ‘a Channel 4 sitcom’, rather than ‘the Channel 4 sitcom’. By this time it had been running for eight years, and was on its seventh series. Perhaps, given the Stewart Lee advert, things have changed. Or perhaps, in the same way Kathy Acker is described as an author who had fans ‘among people who didn’t usually buy books’, Lee is a comedian for people who don’t usually like comedy.

I admit I’ve always been intrigued by the way magazines second-guess their readers’ tastes, and so have to reach for the words ‘a’ or ‘called’ to qualify something, rather than a more flattering ‘the’. As in, ‘I was listening to a band called the Beatles’ (because you, the imagined reader, won’t have heard of them). Or ‘I was watching a film called Citizen Kane’. The practice is even more curious now, because it assumes the reader hasn’t got access to Google.

**

Wednesday 18th October 2017. To Birkbeck for a training session on archiving ‘intractable’ objects. I choose Firbankiana, a miniature book published in 1989 by the New York independent press Hanuman, who operated in the 80s and early 90s. The book is part of a quirky series on figures from avant-garde culture. Other subjects include Candy Darling, Burroughs, Richard Hell, and David Hockney. Quite collectable now. In preparing to talk about the Firbank book, I discover that Hanuman operated out of the Chelsea Hotel, and that the books were based on Indian prayer books, hence the idea of carrying about a little book of Burroughs or Firbank by way of demonstrating one’s  faith. Indeed, they hired the same prayer-book printers in Madras, who in turn used the same local fishermen to hand-stitch the pages together (Source: website for the Hanuman archive, University of Michigan Library). I wonder what the fishermen made of Candy Darling.

Thursday 19th October 2017. Library inductions for the new PhDs. We start with a tour of the historic Senate House Library, followed by a lesson on how to use their online catalogue. Then to Birkbeck’s more modern library next door, where we are taught about using the many electronic databases. I come away with my head swimming in inelegant acronyms. Like ‘PhD’, in fact.

Birkbeck Library has just refurbished its upper floor in Torrington Square. Over the summer they removed whole banks of shelving and replaced them with some fifty or so brand new study desks. The shelves are unlikely to be missed, as they contained ancient periodicals and directories. These materials are now in storage, so people can still request them. But one suspects they’re all digitised and available online.

This is very much a sign of the times. In Birkbeck there seems to be more students this year than ever before, despite all the reports of high fees and the difficulties in housing. Last year the free desks in the library ran out completely every day, with the peak time around 4pm. Some clichés about students being late risers never change. Meanwhile the back numbers of academic journals, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and directories have migrated to the electronic ether.

Libraries are now as much about spaces for bodies (and their laptops) as they are about spaces for books. For many students, a library’s key role is as a quiet, conducive and above all heated space in which to work at a laptop, away from the piped music of franchise cafes, and away from the unheatable shoebox that a student probably has to call a home.

But some of the old reference materials still manage to lurk among all the bodies and the backpacks. In Senate House today, while on the tour, I spy the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelves in its thick black hardbacks, all twenty volumes of it. I ask a librarian if anyone still consults these out-of-date tomes. ‘Probably hardly anyone, but we like to keep them there for nostalgia.’

 

***

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Summer Distortion

Thursday 10 August 2017. Tobi H visits from New York, friends Kyle and Caroline in tow, and we have a heady night out at the Ku bar in Soho. Tobi stays the night. A rare spike in the otherwise sparse history of my love life. At least, since the Tories got in.

**

Friday 11 Aug 2017.  To the Rio for a screening of 1991: The Year Punk Broke, accompanied by Kath G, Shanthi and Paul. A live band goes on first: Skinny Girl Diet. Two young women, guitar and drums only. Lights up throughout, audience all seated. This might diminish the rock gig effect, but it does show off the Rio’s Art Deco architecture.

I still enjoy much of the music from the film: the pre-Britpop wave of American grunge bands all signing to major labels. Hence the title, implying that the footage represents a version of the punk spirit ‘breaking’ into the mainstream. It’s mostly footage of Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana touring European festivals in the summer of the year in question, just before the release of Nevermind. Thurston Moore’s larking about to the camera turns him from ice-cool poet to brattish irritant. At one point he lets the camera film him using and flushing a backstage toilet: a dangerous taunt for critics. Well, ‘Teenage Riot’ still astonishes. The other three of Sonic Youth come out better: the drummer is a virtuoso in any genre.

Kim Gordon has the same invulnerable charisma as Stevie Nicks, then as now. To be worshipped so much for so long takes a large amount of nerve, so it helps to be American. As ever, there’s an element of timing, of a vacancy being filled. Role models, like ideas, depend on the right historical moment. The Stone Roses saw that their generation needed a Beatles, and filled the vacancy out of sheer arrogance. They got away with worse than murder: they got away with laziness. And still the worship came, because the need for new gods is too powerful. On the canal down the road, a gallery sells prints of Stone Roses photographs for £720 each.

In the 1991 film, Babes in Toyland sound like the noisiest group on earth. That was the ‘punk’ aspect of the music: certain noise settings on guitar pedals, sonic distortion as the creation of new space. And Nirvana: then on the cusp of global domination, the footage now imbued with inevitable gravitas. The young man in pain, the noise of fame and suicide still in the future, now helplessly distorting the past.

**

Saturday 12 Aug 2017. With Tobi and co once more, this time to the club night Pink Glove. It’s walking distance for me: the Victoria pub off Dalston Lane. Named after the Pulp song, it’s a gay indie night where the bulk of the music is vintage alternative: 80s and 90s. I have to explain who Pulp are – or were – to my American friends. Were they the wrong kind of British, compared to Oasis, or just too arch? No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’ comes on, and I remember it as the theme from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. This in turn points out how these kind of club nights are school reunions of a kind for me too. I worry about wallowing in the past: how soon is now? And yes, they play that too.

Perhaps when I’m finally satisfied with the present I’ll be fine about the past.

I part company with the Younger Americans and walk alone up Kingsland Road. Saturday night, 3AM. Little silver canisters all over the pavement, beneath the rising tower of the luxury flats at Dalston Kingsland station. The canisters are to do with drugs, though legal. Today’s drug of choice is nitrous oxide. Laughing gas. How else to react to the times?

Two drunk women sidestep into my path. Here we go.

‘We just want to say… You really look like… Will Ferrell.’

Well it’s preferable to ‘Oi, Donald Trump!’ heard on the escalator at Euston a few weeks ago.

Then they let me pass. I go home.

**

Thursday 17 Aug 2017: I see The Big Sick at the Rio. Terrible title, but an excellent comedy about the culture clash. Though it has that Judd Apatow trait of going on too long. Also an indication of the mainstream American knowledge of Pakistani culture, or the lack of it: it’s as if all those 80s British films – My Beautiful Laundrette and so on – never happened. Is America thirty years behind in the cultural awareness stakes? Don’t answer that. The film has a very good joke about 9/11 which probably had to wait till 2017 to be allowed in. Not too soon any more, not now.

**

Struggling with the dissertation for the MA (Contemporary Literature and Culture, Birkbeck). 15,000 words, titled ‘Music and Belonging in Alan Hollinghurst’. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in, except that I’ve never written 15,000 words about anything before.

The other three students in my summer ‘Study Buddies’ group are doing class in contemporary Indian novels, female villains in X-Men comics, and the environmental anxieties behind Godzilla films.

I have a complete lack of motivation at this point. The question keeps coming: is this really the best thing I should be doing with my summer, with my time, with my life, at this age? So hard to know. Right now I have a feeling of being utterly out of the swim of society. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Society and I exist in mutual suspicion.

Not earning an income is unavoidably troubling, though. People in their forties are meant to have a fair amount of spending money – almost by way of compensation. I see friends going on foreign trips to festivals and big concerts and West End plays, and I admit I’m envious. But this is to make the mistake of comparing myself with others. I soon remember how ill-suited I am to so many normal jobs, and how I wouldn’t last. What am I suited to, now, today? Writing, editing, research, and (hopefully) lecturing. I’ve now clocked up six years studying English literature at graduate and post-graduate levels, and on top of all that I have my long experience of life in the real world before. That has to count for something. But – oh, one’s moods are all over the place.

**

Wednesday 30th August 2017. Saturation coverage of the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. As notable deaths from the summer of 1997 go, I’m thinking more about William Burroughs and Jeffrey Bernard. Princesses for the wrong kind of people.

The blameless subject of my dissertation, Alan Hollinghurst, puts out a new novel only every 6 or 7 years. The latest one, The Sparsholt  Affair is due out later this year, three weeks after my dissertation deadline. Happily, today I acquire an advance proof courtesy of a kind person at Pan MacMillan. If nothing else, the dissertation will be right up to date.

**

Thursday 31st August 2017. Richard Smith dies. In the 90s he was the main British music critic to specialise in gay perspectives, albeit with a provocative agenda. Cheeky, bitchy, and sometimes downright cruel, he was nevertheless kind to my own bands. Orlando and Fosca had rave reviews from him in Gay Times.

Mr Smith’s review of the first Fosca album was entirely made up of quotes from the lyrics sheet. I suppose I could have invoiced him. But I suspect he thought I’d be amused or flattered or both. He was quite right.

RS was one of those few journalists whose work you could actually identify without consulting the byline. Today, despite all the emphasis on ‘building your brand’, so many journalists strive to be exactly the same as each other. That dreaded contemporary acronym, FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is really a version of TOSO – Terrified of Standing Out. What I suppose I’m saying is that I think most journalists are a bunch of TOSOs.

***

Saturday 1st September 2017. A better day: I finish another chapter of the dissertation.

**

Saturday 2nd September. Mum visits, and I show her around my new stomping ground. We start off with the trendy Café Route in the core of the current gentrification, Dalston Square. This is followed by the Curve Garden, Café Oto and the Arcola Theatre – all part of the New Dalston spirit – and then we hit the Babel intensity of Kingsland High Street. Here, Old Dalston bumps along with the new:  multi-cultural, multi-income, multi-desperation, multi-sanity. In such streets is the true flavour of the metropolis, where everyone, even the mad, seems aglow with purpose.

Then north on the bus to Stoke Newington, with its more Richard Curtis-sy style of London. We see the beautiful fallow deer in Clissold Park, and the umpteen trendy cafes in Church Street, including one whose name is the chemical formula for caffeine. Then back south to the canal in Haggerston, where we walk along to the towpath to Islington.

I’m audibly aware of the presence of rich people who sit drinking wine on many of the boats, Eton accents broadcasting across the canal. But then one feels that about London full stop: the danger of it becoming a playground for the rich. Thankfully, people are starting to ask questions about what London is actually for, so one remains optimistic. The Arcola Theatre has Pay What You Can days for its plays.

**

Sunday 3rd September 2017. My 46th birthday. Ms G my landlady says ‘Happy birthday!’ in the hallway. Well, I have to spend another day in the library. Have to. I battle stomach pains (seeing doctors about this) and wrestle not very happily with the dissertation.

**

Monday 4th September 2017. Finish Chapter 1 and write 1000 new words for Chapter 4.

Thoughts on books as objects. I’m shopping for a new mp3 player, and become increasingly bad tempered with the dominance and cost of Apple products. I settle for a SanDisk Clip Jam, only to find out that it cannot play the audiobooks I bought off iTunes. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to spend the equivalent sum on print books. Books are cheap, calming, offline machines. And they actually belong to you after you’ve bought them. If a house is a machine for living in, a book is a machine for living.

**

Tuesday 5 September 2017. To Barberette in Hackney Downs to have my roots done. It’s a gender-neutral, bohemian-friendly, affordable hairdresser’s. Pictures on the wall of David Bowie in the 70s and Agyness Deyn in the 2000s. I ask for a bleached ‘do that somehow looks contemporary but without a ‘fade’, the current name for shaving the sides. Style, not fashion.

Today I somehow manage to have my hair bleached and cut and still find time to write over 1000 words on the dissertation. I think this is called ‘putting a spurt on’.

***

Wednesday 6th September 2017. An unexpected present from Liz at the London Library, who’s leaving: Woolf’s Writer’s Diary, the beautiful Persephone edition. Lots of words in there about persisting when the spirit sags, of course.

Evening: a Study Buddies meeting, with fellow Birkbeck MA students Craig, Jassy and Hafsa. I’ve found that this really helps. Our first meetings were simply ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions: an enforced two hours of silent writing in exam conditions, broken into four 25-minute bursts. For the last fortnight, we meet up and pass around chapters of our work, adding proofreading and presentational suggestions, while being careful not to cross over into the realms of collusion (of which there’s strict rules). Most of it is about getting the wording of references and footnotes right.

The sessions have really helped alleviate the sense of being cut adrift. In my case, it triggers a healthy burst of productivity. In short, it gives me a kick up the bum. I suppose it’s why people still go to offices to work. Procrastination is site-specific.

**

Saturday 9th September 2017. Finish reading The Sparsholt Affair, just in time for the dissertation.

**

Monday 11 Sept 2017. Finish the cuts on Draft 1. Straight onto Draft 2. Write the abstract and the acknowledgements.

Each draft takes a lot less time than the one before. I make dramatic cuts to Draft 1 to fit the word count, and then by Draft 4 it’s really just pedantic polishing. That’s the hope, anyway.

Tuesday 12th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 2. I note the term ‘androcentric’ for Hollinghurst’s novels (used by my supervisor Joe B). It means male-focused, but in a more aesthetic and less pejorative way than ‘phallocentric’. The latter tends to have overtones of masculine repression. ‘Androcentric’ is also perfect for describing Christopher Nolan’s films.

Wednesday 13th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 3. Evening: drinks with the three Study Buddies at the College Arms, Store Street, Bloomsbury. They’ve all finished and delivered their dissertations. I’ve been granted the option of a two week extension, because of my dyslexia. Except that my competitive urge has now kicked in, and I want to prove I can make the normal deadline after all. That, and the fact that I could really do with a break before the PhD starts in early October.

**

Thursday 14 September 2017. I work like mad. Finish Draft 4.

**

Friday 15th September 2017. Up at 5am to maximise working time. Finish Draft 5, and hand in the MA dissertation on time by noon. So I make the proper deadline after all. One copy is uploaded electronically, then I have to print out two copies using the college printers, get them bound at Ryman’s, and post them into the big slot in the wall at Birkbeck’s School of Arts reception, 43 Gordon Square. All done. I’ll receive the grade for the whole MA around early December.

After sending the thing off, I now realise I should have included Debbie Smith and Atalanta Kernick in the acknowledgements. It was their 45th birthday present to me, the Carl Wilson book Let’s Talk About Love, that inspired the whole theme of the dissertation.

**

Saturday 23 September 2017. To Brighton for the weekend. An impulsive treat for myself, aimed at creating something vaguely in the way of a holiday. I’m trying to mark the small gap of time between the end of my MA (15 September) and the start of my PhD (5 Oct).  Too poor to go abroad (haven’t done so in 8 years), but I always like Brighton.

There’s a visible increase in rough sleepers on the pavement, especially around the station. But then it’s the same in London. Inequality has never had it so good.

I stay at the decrepit and shambling Royal Albion Hotel. This is partly because I prefer a Shining-esque labyrinthine hotel to a B&B or a boutique one, but mostly because every other large hotel in Brighton is booked up, thanks to the Labour conference. Large hotels, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald on parties, are so intimate. At small hotels there isn’t any privacy.

Evening: attend Simon Price’s 50th birthday party, held across two floors at the Latest bar in Brighton’s Manchester Street. I chat to Taylor Parkes, Seaneen, Emma and Adrian, and Toby Amies (whose film The Man Whose Mind Exploded I absolutely love ). Simon P tells me how he still regards the Orlando album, Passive Soul, as a classic.

Withstand the less welcome attentions of drunk people I don’t really know, though one of them says:

‘I’ve just got to say who you remind me of’

‘Go on then.’

‘David Sylvian’.

‘Oh, that’s a comparison I actually quite like.’

It’s the second 50th birthday party I’ve been to, and I notice a common feature of such events. There’s a projected slideshow on the wall of photos from the host’s past. I’d previously thought such projections were only for funerals. But I suppose it’s a use of photography to defy death, or possibly to help prevent early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Mr Price puts on a good party: a free vegan buffet, two floors for dancing or chatting. I drink too much red wine (ruining my throat for two days), talk rubbish, and stay too late. Taylor P shows me a photo of his son, who like all ten-year-old boys looks a bit like the left-wing commentator Owen Jones.

Lots of Eighties pop music plays on the dancefloor, just as it did when I first met Simon P in the 90s. The Eighties haven’t aged a bit.

**

Sunday 24 September 2017. I walk around the seafront in my black suit (slightly too cold for the white one), bumping into Seaneen again – this time with her child. Huge banners on the centre next to the Grand: ‘FOR THE MANY’.

One new sight on the beach is the ‘i360’ tower, a heavily-branded attempt by British Airways to duplicate the success of the London Eye. Instead of a wheel of transparent pods, it’s a single oval capsule that goes up and down a central cylinder for no very good reason. A Space Needle and Thread, as it were. It’s right by the wreck of the old West Pier. As I pass I see that the ride is offering 10% off for Labour delegates. There’s also a wicker basket champagne stall on the way in. A comment suggests itself about champagne socialism and looking down on people, but I’m too hungover to make it.

***

Wednesday 27th September 2017. Evening: to the Prince Charles Cinema with Tim Chipping for Oxide Ghosts, a film of out-takes of the 1997 Chris Morris TV series, Brass Eye. It’s made and presented in person by the Brass Eye director, Michael Cumming. Cumming turns out to be a boyish, rather Terry Gilliam-like maverick, slouching in baseball cap and ripped shirt sleeves.

Although the Prince Charles is packed with cult comedy fans, Cumming is clearly a fan of Brass Eye himself. He delights in Morris’s unique similes and malapropisms, quoting them constantly and calling his explanation of references in the credits as ‘trainspotting’ on his part. There’s even some footage of Cumming unlocking dusty crates of his own VHS tapes, as if chancing upon the Ark of the Covenant.

This is something that Tim and I discuss before the screening when talking about our own records. How proud are you allowed to be of your own work? There’s the common response of saying that you haven’t looked at your work for decades, but there’s some vanity in this too, of course. Humility can be a brand-building strategy – ‘he’s just like us!’ Self-mythologizing, meanwhile, can be more honest. A form of un-false modesty. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the art has the last word, while the humans and their vanities come and go. The blooper sections are droll enough, but it’s the cut sections of whole ideas that make Oxide Ghosts worthwhile. ‘Just give us more to see’, sings Dot in Sunday in the Park With George. 

Chris Morris is still as careful to control his work as ever, and has only given his blessing to this film on the understanding that it’s not to be made available in any other format. I understand that this is partly for rights reasons – always a nightmare – but it’s also to make the event a bit more special. To see the film, you have to attend one of Mr Cumming’s cinema screenings or nothing.

I’m reminded how Kate Bush declined to release a video recording of her Hammersmith comeback concerts after all. Both cases become protests against the assumption that live events are just YouTube content in waiting. But there’s some irony in this, given Oxide Ghosts’ reliance on archives. And indeed, here I am, mediating my memory of the evening in a public diary. That tension between wanting to record everything, and knowing that there will be always be distortion in doing so.

***

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Getting To

Friday 14 July 2017. I’m clearing out boxes of old clutter, in preparation for moving house. Today I go through a folder of old song drafts and unused lyrics. One idea for an album title, from 2002 is ‘The Ladybird Book of Resentment’.

***

Saturday 15 July 2017. The big move. I still have two boxes of clutter to go through, but time has run out. So the boxes have to come with me, to be tackled some other day.

At 10am Ms J arrives with her white van, which has a tendency to stall. ‘You have to give it twenty minutes, then it’ll be okay’.

There are more slapstick antics when we’re loading the van and Ms J somehow receives a cut on the hand (no good turn goes unpunished). As it turns out, she carries plasters with her at all times: she works with the Girl Guides.

A single van load covers my twenty-three years of possessions – though that’s after I’d spent the week paring them down. We trundle cautiously along the full length of the Holloway Road, then it’s Eastward Ho, turning left into the Balls Pond Road. Soon after this, we turn left again into the Dalston and Stoke Newington borderlands. My new street is partly in N16, partly in E8. At the end, the satnav demands a turning that makes no sense. So I take enormous delight in ignoring it.

My new landlady Ms K comes out to help unload, as does Ms Shanthi. So I move in with the aid of three women: the Three Graces of Removals. My new room comes with an antique bureau, which suits me perfectly.

Shortly after I’m unpacked I walk out onto Kingsland High Street for the first time. It’s a warm Saturday evening, about 8pm. I’m wearing my linen suit trousers with braces and no jacket. A dressed-up group of men and woman in their thirties pass me, probably on their way to a bar or a restaurant. One of the women grabs one of my braces as she passes, and pings it. This is the full extent of the encounter. She says nothing by way of annotation, not even to her friends. I’m left slightly shocked and confused.

I wonder if this means my appearance is already too much for Dalston, mere hours after I move in. But then, walking south and passing Dalston Kingsland Overground station, I see the sort of person the area is meant to be notorious for. He is a tall man with floppy greying hair, glasses, and a beard. In his hair are two pink ribbon bows. I wonder if the braces-pinging woman would grab at those. Perhaps not: he has the confidence of the 2017 hipster about him.

Still, I get another kind of welcome. I look in at Dalston Superstore, the gay bar which doubles as a café during the day. It currently has a fascinating exhibition of qay London history. There’s party invites going back to 1920, private letters, and a photo of Quentin Crisp.

***

Sunday 16 July. To Café Oto for a talk by Val Wilmer, the veteran music writer and photographer, notably of black American jazz musicians. I bump into various Wire Magazine types, including Frances May Morgan.

***

Friday 21 July 2017. The first of what will surely be many trips to the Rio cinema, given it’s on my doorstep. I go with Shanthi to see The Beguiled, a Civil War drama starring Nicole Kidman. Colin Farrell is forced to stay at a girls-only boarding school. It’s no surprise that this situation doesn’t turn out well. Sophia Coppola maintains her usual unearthly atmosphere, though very much with a Female Gaze in evidence, more so than The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. We also have a meal at The Stone Cave nearby, a quirky Turkish restaurant which really does look like a cave (fibreglass, I’m told).

***

A quote from Hunter S Thompson: ‘Everybody is looking for someone who can stand up in the wind. It is lonely standing up and crowded lying down.’ (from Proud Highway, 1994).

***

Friday 28 July 2017. To the Rio to see Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, with Ewan B. I find it hard to persuade any female friends to join me, their reason being a dislike of Mr Nolan’s style. This is reasonable enough. His films do tend to be overtly interested in the struggles of men in harsh, often paranoid situations. Women, if there are any, exist at the mercy of said men. A war film by Nolan promises to be even more male-heavy. And so it proves: the only line uttered by a woman in Dunkirk is ‘Cup of tea, love?’

Nolan’s aesthetic tends to also be one of architectural tidiness. The most recent cinematic depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation was Atonement, with its five-minute shot gliding around a cluttered and muddy beach, teeming with soldiers, horses being executed, bonfires, bandstands and seaside rides. Messy, in a word. In Nolan’s Dunkirk, even the chaos is tidy. Soldiers queue up in nice lines along vanishing points, or collapse to the ground in perfect choreography. Kafka at the ballet.

We emerge to a real-life mess of conflict: the aftermath of a small riot on Kingsland Road. Like a Nolan film, the riot seems to have been contained along the long straight line of the high street (one of the straightest roads in London – possibly Roman). It’s all over when we come out of the cinema, so I have to read local news reports to find out what happened.

The death of Rashan Charles, a young black man who died in police custody, led to a protest outside the off-licence where he was arrested. Some of the protestors then blockaded the whole road with bins, cones and mattresses. When the police arrived, bottles and fireworks were thrown. The officers later returned with heavier reinforcements: helicopters, dogs, horses, armoured riot squads, dozens of vans. The blockade was pushed further north– like a World War rout – where it seems the protestors were bested; though not before several shop windows and cash machines were smashed. Only one person was arrested.

Though virtually ignored by the national media, the skirmish was enough for some emporia to lock their customers inside with them while it was going on (I refuse to write ‘while it was kicking off’). One patron of Dalston Superstore said that seeing the goings-on from the inside of a gay bar was like watching The Line of Duty soundtracked by Abba.

***

Having lived here for three weeks, I know that Dalston is not quite the overtly bohemian paradise its present reputation would have one believe, but it’s also not the multicultural, inner city locale it used to be either. It’s more like a multiverse, a patchwork of different worlds. All of London is like that, but Dalston has a more concentrated version.

Thinking how the 2011 summer riots spread from an incident similar to Rashan Charles’s death, I wonder what’s changed. Perhaps the patchwork quality of Dalston works as a kind of protection: no single world can take over for very long (except the world of the police). Or perhaps it’s now hard for a riot to spread in an era of constant distraction. Even anarchy needs a sense of focus. Or perhaps, as some people have said, tempers were doused by the heavy rain the next day.

***

Wednesday 9 Aug 2017. I take a break from my dissertation and meet Mum for afternoon tea at the Academicians’ Room, in the Royal Academy. We’re the guests of Minna M. I like how the Club has its own entrance, to the right of the main RA doors in the Piccadilly courtyard. It’s the Brideshead Revisited phrase, following on from The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland: ‘that low door in the wall’. The V&A Member’s Room is hidden behind a wall of mirrors.

The British Library in St Pancras has opened its own plush Members’ bar (a bar in a library!).  Private members’ clubs seem to be more popular than ever, possibly thanks to Soho House. I wonder if the rise of non-places, like franchise cafes and transport plazas, makes people yearn for places steeped in uniqueness. There’s so much emphasis on the identity of humans, while the identity of places is often overlooked.  And yet the two are connected. Being a member of a place is a declaration of identity. I used to acquire my own identity from being a fan of bands. Now I get it from being a fan of places.

***

Thursday 10 Aug 2017. Notes on language. Saying ‘you get to’ do something, rather than ‘you can’, is becoming widespread. In the news today, a young American woman describes her battle to stop a corporation running some sort of pipeline through her neighbourhood. She says, ‘This isn’t a protest you get to come home from’.

I wonder why she says ‘get to’. ‘Get to’ has more overtones of permission than ‘can’, but specifically it’s a child’s permission. ‘On Friday I get to stay up late’. ‘If you don’t do your homework, you don’t get to watch TV’. There’s an aura of youthful irony about the usage, but also the implication that all adults are now permanent children, with the real ‘parents’ being systems, institutions, networks. There may also be a touch of gaming language, along the lines of using ‘it’s all kicking off’ to describe a riot. See also ‘achievement unlocked’ and ‘goals’.

Outside Senate House Library today, an angry woman bellows into her mobile: ‘You don’t get to tell me off for eavesdropping!’

With some irony, I realise that my writing this event down is itself a form of eavesdropping. But then, in an age when people are so used to consuming the intimacies of others, from social media to loud private phone calls made in otherwise silent public spaces, the meaning of eavesdropping has rather changed. Now, whether one likes it or not, one ‘gets to’ be an eavesdropper.


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Slouching Towards Dalston

Monday 29 May 2017. After the self-pity of before, two pieces of good news. My MA essay on horror fiction came back with a distinction mark. The last assessment is the big dissertation, due in September. From the weighting system, I’ve worked out that in order to get a distinction for the whole MA, the dissertation needs to come in at a minimum of 62. So I shouldn’t need to sweat over things too much, in theory. The mark for the horror essay was especially gratifying as it came from Professor Roger Luckhurst, author of introductions for the Oxford Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and HP Lovecraft: Classic Stories.

The other big news is that I have found and committed to a new rented room. It’s in a Victorian house in Dalston, close to the Rio cinema. The nearest tube is Dalston Kingsland, on the Overground line. The landlady is a friend and fellow Birkbeck graduate. She approached me directly when she heard of my forthcoming eviction, and offered me the room. So that’s one less thing to worry about. I’ll move in mid-July, which will give me time to bevel down 23 years of possessions into a nomadic minimum.

Dalston is a rather different environment to Highgate: more youthful and urban, less of a privileged bubble. I was going to say less leafy too, but I’ve just found out about the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a piece of disused railway line turned into a public garden. It will mean a new life of sorts, frequenting places like the Rio, Dalston Superstore, Café Oto, the Arcola Theatre, and the Burley Fisher bookshop.

The Arcola’s current production is Richard III, the only Shakespeare play with a mention of a Dickon. I took that to be an encouraging sign. Though what really swung it was the closeness to the Rio. It’s only now that I’ve realised how much I’ve always wanted to have an Art Deco cinema on my doorstep. And Dalston has that very London sense of crossing borders in time, the old constantly overlaid with the new.

***

John Ruskin’s diary for 8th October 1880: ‘No time for anything here but pleasant walks and lessons’. Most of my days have been like that recently. Sitting in libraries, working on the dissertation. The British Library has the best air conditioning. When the temperature soars, as it has of late, that’s where I tend to work. Or lurk.

***

Earlier activity:

Wednesday 24 May 2017. With Jon S to the Hampstead Everyman for Alien: Covenant. A spin-off of a spin-off, following on from Prometheus, which in turn was a prequel to Alien. I think. I started to stop caring towards the end, things becoming so formulaic that I didn’t even notice how they got rid of the new alien that one is meant to give a hoot about in the last fifteen minutes. It doesn’t help that the creatures’ CGI-ness somehow becomes more obvious when relayed on a spaceship monitor. At that point it looks like a harmless video game character, not the dripping, gooey creations of the 70s and 80s films that had to be built from latex and servo-motors. In the past special effects had to hide the rubber. Now they have to hide the pixels.

Still, up to this point the film is entertaining enough. Michael Fassbinder is always worth watching, and here he meets his ideal date – himself. ‘I know wheat’ is an actual line of dialogue, as is ‘I’ll do the fingering’. And there’s good news for those who think science-fiction films need more scenes of recorder lessons.

Katherine Waterston is the Tough Woman Lead this time (one remembers that Ridley Scott was also behind Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane). Though here Ms Waterston’s short bob hairdo and permanently mournful expression make her character more child-like and sensitive-looking, which is to the film’s credit. She looks like she’d be better off playing bass in a late 80s indie band, rather than battling monsters with mouths like Rexel office staplers.

***

Thursday 25 May 2017. To Somerset House (specifically the East Wing’s Indigo Rooms), for the private view of Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and Their Digital Descendants. I’d agreed to let the curators use an extract from my diary for a digital screen on the way in. The idea is a different entry from someone’s diary is shown on the screen each day. What I didn’t expect was to see my diary acknowledged more substantially, in a large timeline on a wall. The timeline tells the history of diaries from the invention of writing to the current state of the internet, with the Terminator-like rise of ‘the internet of things’. Along the way there’s Pepys, Anne Frank, and in 1997 the first entry in my own diary. The implication is that mine is thought to be the longest-running of its kind. The earliest web diary is by Carolyn L Burke, who kept hers from 1995 to 2002. She wrote in raw HTML code, as did I at first. Black letters on white.

The bulk of the exhibition manages to address the appeal of paper versus digital, but the print diaries work better emotionally. I feel a shudder when I see the artist Keith Vaughan’s diary is here. It’s a large ledger, opened to the final entry, which records his suicide in the 1970s. Judging by his handwriting, which gets more illegible by the letter, he was writing the entry as the pills took effect:

‘65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure. I did some good work…’

Then the letters shrink to a scrawl, and stop. The upside is knowing that he was right about the ‘good work’. Twelve of his paintings are in the Tate’s collection. One of them is currently on display in the Tate Britain’s Queer British Art show.

***

Sunday 28 May 2017. To the Odeon Covent Garden for Colossal with Ms Shanthi. Anne Hathaway finds her alcoholic antics in a small American town are connected with the appearance of a giant Godzilla-like monster, which is causing havoc on the other side of the world. There’s a serious message here about the effects of heavy drinking, though viewers might be put off by the lurches in tone, from social realist comedy-drama to a Transformers-like sci-fi thriller, and back again. An odd film, but I admire its nerve. It’s a little like Being John Malkovitch in that respect; difficult to imagine it was allowed to be made it all.

***

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The Spare Apostle

Wednesday 17 May 2017. Once again, a life-changing event occurs in the gap between diary updates, one which eclipses everything else that happened. It’s like that science demonstration where a heavy ball is placed in the centre of a black rubber sheet. The sheet is meant to represent space, and everything else around the heavy ball bends and distorts around it. Something to do with how black holes work, I think. I wasn’t really paying attention.

On Friday, 12th May, after 23 years of renting the same room in Highgate, I was made homeless.

There had been a sighting of a proper omen on the way home. Actual entrails. Around 7pm I left Birkbeck library in Torrington Square, walked past SOAS and through Russell Square. When passing the students loafing outside SOAS, I always look out for Russell Brand, currently the college’s best known pupil. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks the neighbouring square is named after him.

At Russell Square tube station, I took the lift to the platforms. When the doors opened at platform level I had to step over a small red mess on the floor. On looking closer, I saw it was a trampled tube mouse.

In a lifetime of using the London Underground, this was the first time I’ve ever seen a mouse come a cropper of the system’s endless human stampede. Tube mice are usually very good at sensing movement, fleeing at top speed into holes in the walls that never quite seem large enough. But perhaps the areas by the overcrowded lifts at Russell Square are a special case. The hordes of visitors from the British Museum ignore all the Smart Tourist advice about travelling via Holborn, where there’s more space and escalators. Instead they pack Russell Square’s ancient and put-upon lifts to the brim, with their backpacks and wheeled suitcases and push chairs and coach parties from all four corners of the globe. When coming back via the lifts, the exodus is too much, it seems, for tube mice. As if the Elgin Marbles weren’t controversial enough.

On seeing the dead mouse, I thought of entrails, sacrifices, and omens. When I got home to Highgate half an hour later, and saw in the shared hallway that each tenant had been given a sealed envelope from the owners, I feared the worst.

It transpires that my landlady, the daughter of the original owner who died two years ago, has been hit with a huge inheritance tax bill for the house. Despite her mother’s wish to keep the house going for the sake of the tenants – her family are that rare thing in London, landlords who care more about humans than money – the tax people have given her no option but to throw the tenants out and sell the building. We haven’t been given a firm date yet, but it’s likely to be ‘around the end of July’.

Of course, I’m still dealing with the shockwaves of Tom’s death. I would indulge the superstitious and melodramatic side of myself (rarely far from the surface) and say these things always come in threes. That would then license my fear that something else life-altering is lurking around the corner. But in fact, something else happened before that.

In early April my application for a PhD scholarship at Birkbeck was declined. That’s the money which effectively pays people a modest but sustainable wage (£16k) for doing a PhD full-time. This year, Birkbeck’s School of Arts only had 12 of them to give out. After much revising of my proposal I sent it off. A few weeks later I was told I had failed to get a scholarship, though I had made ‘the final fifteen’. Like a spare apostle. (‘Did you know Jesus?’ ‘No, but I made the final fifteen.’)

However, I was offered a small ‘studentship’ bursary, which pays for the fees only, and have since been advised that these are not give out lightly either. It would mean I’d have to do the PhD part-time, and live on very little. Or try to do paid work at the same time, despite my slowness. So that’s what I’m looking at doing when the MA ends in September. Until then, I will spend the summer doing the MA dissertation, while also trying to find somewhere to live, on top of working out how best to fit 23 years of possessions into a couple of minicab rides. And as I write this, my back pain has suddenly flared up out of nowhere, the one that turned out to be stress-related. I hope something good comes out of all this, because I’m rather fed up with 2017 being quite such a challenging year.

Quentin Crisp lasted 40 years in his Chelsea bedsit. I was rather hoping to beat his record. But never mind. I’m not him. I just hope I can find a new landlord who, like Mr Crisp’s and mine, look kindly upon those ‘of a different stripe’, as he put it.

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Something Where There Should Be Nothing

Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity:  ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.

I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.

So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’  I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.

***

How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.

(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)

***

For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.

***

12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.

Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.

***

13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.

 

***

15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.

There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.

This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.

Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.

The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.

I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.

Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.

I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.

***

16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.

***

18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.

***

20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.

***

22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.

24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.

English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.

***

25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.

28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.

31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.

***

Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.

One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3.  In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.

Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.

We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.

***

Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.

***

Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.

A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.

***

Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.

***

Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.

Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.

***

Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.

***

Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.

***

Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.

***

Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).

A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.

***

Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:

‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.

***

Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.

***

Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:

‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’

***

Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.

Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.

Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.

Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.

Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.

There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.

I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.

Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).

In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.

Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.

Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.

***

Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.

***

Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.

***

Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.

There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.

Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.

***

Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do  some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.

Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins

***

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Cool Guitar Boy

(The title is a song by Heavenly)

Tuesday 21st February 2017. I need to restart this diary. I deliberately took a break in the New Year because a couple of college tasks were getting on top of me: an MA essay and a proposal for a PhD. Then I had to revise the proposal for a PhD funding bid, so that went on even longer. But both tasks are over now. The essay won a First Class / Distinction – my third out of three so far. I’ll hear back about the funding soon.

Of the last few weeks, one event eclipses everything else. I have to get that – I want to say ‘out of the way’, but that sounds wrong. I’ve tried writing this entry so many times, then giving up. Death is hard enough to write about when the person is older and ill, as was the case with Dad three years ago. A much younger death is harder; a sudden death is harder still. Whatever I write, I will almost certainly make a mess of it. But I have to start.

Doing so on a birthday has an aptness to it. A new start.

So my younger brother Tom would have been 42 today. Born 21st February 1975. Died 25th January 2017. He was my only sibling.

This time last year, I took him for a Sunday lunch at the Crown and Two Chairmen in Soho. It was just the two of us, talking about music and TV comedy and life, passing the time, enjoying each other’s company.

He died very suddenly and very unexpectedly. He was working as a guitarist and musical director for Adam Ant’s band, and they had just begun a tour of North America. The person who called Mum from the New Jersey hospital was kind enough to wait a few hours until it was morning in the UK.  Mum got the call in Suffolk soon after 7am on Thursday 26th. Then she called me. I got on the next train from Liverpool Street to Ipswich, then took a cab from the station to the village.

I spent the next two days staying with Mum, hardly leaving the house. I vetted the constant phone calls, and did my utmost to protect Mum’s nerves. I figured that a certain throttling back of the calls would be helpful: many callers simply wanted to leave a message of condolence, rather than have a conversation. So I answered the phone and tried not to pass every single call on to Mum, like a gatekeeper. As it was, some of her friends could barely speak with grief themselves.

When there were no phone calls, Mum and I just sat in the front room together, in silence.

Mum: I don’t know what to say.

Me: Well, there’s no manual.

But there was a little moment of black comedy. In the taxi on the way to Mum’s that first morning, I realised I didn’t have the cash for it – it was £30. I stopped the taxi at a service station on the bypass outside Hadleigh, the nearest town, where there was an ATM. Oone easily forgets about such rural rarities. As I came back out of the shop, I walked over to where the cab had stopped by the pumps and tugged repeatedly at the door handle. It seemed to be locked. I glanced in the windows to see that the cabbie had been replaced by a small terrified woman, who was doing a lot of head-shaking and finger-pointing. The wrong car. I seemed not to have registered the lack of a massive white ‘TAXI’ sign on the roof.

Looking around, I spotted the cab, parked further on in the forecourt. The cabbie was out of the car, waving to me. He’d moved to let others use the pumps, of course. Not that this occurred to me.

My own solipsism aside, I think there’s an element of (understandable) self-centredness with grief. Grief is the thing with blinkers.

***

Some thoughts about Tom.

Being a sibling is a predicament. Some are better at it than others. Like all younger siblings, Tom found himself thrust into a competition for attention, against someone who’d already had a head start. Indeed someone who might not be keen on sharing. But we shared our parents’ attention without too much conflict – I can’t recall any actual fights. When Tom was small we also shared a green metal bunk bed. I can’t recall if there were any arguments over who got which bunk; we just got on with it.

But I now realise how good Tom was at sharing. He could ascertain what other people wanted, and how strongly they felt about it, and work around that. It was a talent that not only won him many friends, but also served him well when playing in bands. Musical ability is not enough on its own. When a group splits up, it’s often due to the lack of another skill, one which Tom had in abundance: diplomacy. So in Tom’s case, a good brother made for an excellent band member.

And if music is territorial, then Tom was a skilled crosser of borders. There can surely be few guitarists who can move between playing for a daytime radio-friendly artist like Andrea Corr, and the rather more divisive Fields of the Nephilim. In fact, when Tom and I were growing up, we tended to divide up music like our bunk beds: I had the introspective indie bands, he had more outgoing acts like the Beastie Boys, Prince, and (usefully as it turned out) Adam Ant.

I have a very clear memory of Tom when he was aged about 6. It was at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton in the early 80s. Like many small boys, Tom found himself dressed as a pirate at the slightest opportunity, complete with a cardboard cutlass. Butlin’s ran a children’s disco, and this included a chart hit of the time that managed to be compatible with both pirate costumes and child-friendly dance routines. It was ‘Prince Charming’ by Adam Ant. I can see Tom now, a tiny boy dressed as a pirate, throwing up his arms in perfect time, committing fully, taking it seriously.

When I think about Tom, I also have in mind the title of a recent film about the band The National. It’s really about the relationships between brothers, especially brothers who play music. The title is Mistaken for Strangers. That was often the case with Tom and me, perhaps because we had divided up our respective worlds so neatly.

But despite our differences, when I sometimes needed a guitarist for my own band Fosca, Tom would help out. We played concerts together in Sweden and Britain, and he played most of the instruments on the third Fosca album. I know the music wasn’t to his taste, but that didn’t stop him. It was the brotherly thing to do.

***

On the 2nd of February, Mum told me that Tom’s death had left all kinds of financial loose ends and costs to be paid, not least his funeral. It would be wrong to go into a list, but when one points out that he was a freelance concert musician paying rent on a London flat, people tend to understand.

Mum wondered if we could do the internet equivalent of passing round a hat. So I launched a fundraiser page. People had been asking us if there was anything they could do, and now we had an answer. What I especially like about the fundraiser is that it also lets people leave a little tribute message.

Online fundraising for funerals and memorials is quite a common thing to do these days. It’s a nice thing to do, too. It helps stop the salt of money worries being quite so rubbed into the wound of bereavement. People have been incredibly generous so far, and I’m very grateful. I’m especially touched to see the names of some old friends whom I thought I’d fallen out with, and would never hear from again.

It’s been a painful time, but, without intending a pun on an Adam Ant song (a 90s one I rather like), a lot of people have been rather wonderful. My thanks to them. And happy birthday, Tom.

The fundaiser is at: youcaring.com/tomedwards

3rd July 2008. Me, Mum, Dad, Tom.


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DE’S New Year Message for 2017

A Christmas tree selfie from 24th December 2016. Taken in front of the Fitzrovia mural in Whitfield Gardens, near Goodge Street tube. The mural was painted in 1980 by Mick Jones and Simon Barber, and immortalises real people from the community of the time. 

Abyssmas, being that yawning void between Christmas and New Year, is over. I have work to do: an MA essay and a PHD proposal. I also need to update the diary, though that will have to be paused until the more important tasks are over. In any case, the days in question have not been very noteworthy. A sample would read, ‘Tuesday: wrote a bit of the essay. Wednesday: Tried to write a bit of the essay, wasted time instead, watched TV and looked at Twitter.’

This was something of a theme for me in 2016. My energies often wilted, and procrastination set in. I worried whether I was doing the right things with my life, I worried about my ongoing lack of money, I worried about my health. Mostly, I just worried. By the end of the year, I felt I’d done very little of worth at all.

This is one of the reasons why it’s useful to keep a diary. Looking over it now, I know I did manage to achieve some things.

Though my BA degree ended in 2015, the diploma didn’t arrive until January 2016. I decided to get it framed, very cheaply, and put it on display in my room. To frame a diploma is to transform it from document to trophy. In an office, it can declare what a person is qualified to do. Rock stars hang gold discs in their toilets, a manoeuvre that plays up the rebellious reputation of their work, while at the same time indulging a degree of false modesty. In my own case, seeing the degree in my room works as a much-needed act of encouragement. It reminds me that, contrary to that inner critic, I can indeed do what I’m struggling to do. Moreover, it tells me that I’ve done it before, and often, and well.

I also need to remind myself that in 2016 I managed to write two essays for the MA, with both coming in at first class. And I tried out new things. I put on my first art installation, Is It Just Me?, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. I hosted my first Q&A for a film event, Lawrence of Belgravia. And I wrote a number of reviews for The Wire magazine.

To review one’s past year is an act of self-control for the year ahead. So my message for the New Year is that we should think more about little acts of control.

The year 2016 is synonymous with a surge of deaths among creators. One was the novelist Anita Brookner, who turned to novel writing relatively late, after a career as an art historian. Despite her expertise with the art of others, she felt she was ‘drifting’ in her life. She took to producing fiction because, she said, she wanted ‘to control rather than be controlled’.

The great controllers one can do little about are time, age, illness and death. But celebrity is a form of control too: it shapes inputs, the things people discuss, the music they listen to, the words they read. One way of looking at the public’s emotion over celebrity deaths is to realise that people feel a need to touch someone else’s aura of control. When mourning someone we never met, we effectively say, in the nicest possible way, ‘Thank you for your control over my life’.

The electronic devices that are meant to empower us can in fact make us feel at the mercy of others. Most of the social media buzzwords of 2016 were about control, from those related to serious concepts such as ‘identity’, to the unhelpful name-calling of ‘snowflakes’ by conservatives, and ‘fascists’ by the left. The impulse to type ‘FFS’ (‘For f—‘s sake’) on Twitter, every day, about every topic, is too easy. When reacting to the control of others, more self-control is needed.

Quentin Crisp talked about thinking about our own systems of self-discipline as ‘chains of our own making’. However strict these are, he said, they will never be as onerous as ‘those placed upon us by others’.

The trouble is, the chains of others are everywhere. The moment we switch on the internet, others are doing their utmost to control our attention, our time, our actions, our spending patterns, and our beliefs. From advertising to ‘clickbait’, others want us to drift more, falling more out of our own control, and more into theirs. We must be sensitive to this, and return more to our own works. The true tribute to a dead creator is to create fresh work ourselves.

Here’s to a year of turning down the noise of others, and turning up our own.

***

A Happy New Year to all those who have enjoyed the diary. If you can, please help to keep it going by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!

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Haircuts in the Dark

Monday 21st November 2016. To the Peltz Gallery at Gordon Square, for A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting. A fascinating display of British film fans’ archives, from long before the internet era. One collector has kept careful records on all the films he sees during the 50s, as my own father did on comics, and later videos.

The 50s records take the form of typed index cards in a detached metal drawer. I like the exotic names of old cinemas in Derby and Nottingham: ‘The Essoldo’, ‘The Cameo’. One forgets just how much re-seeing used to go on. This enthusiast paid to see The Bounty Hunter, starring Randolph Scott, on a staggering 14 separate occasions, all between 1955 and 1958. Fourteen! Do today’s fans go to see, say, Mad Max: Fury Road  that much?

Another exhibit consists of little envelopes containing clipped-out single frames from reels of film. Their owner was a Brighton projectionist: I learn that clipping out frames as souvenirs was once a common ritual of the profession. Presumably it doesn’t go on any more, what with the rise digital projectors. I think also of vintage clippings of hair kept in lockets. Except that this gentleman’s attitude isn’t always positive: he annotates each clipping with potted reviews on the envelope, and many are scathing. In this way, cinema projectionists are like taxi drivers. A job with a lot of autonomy and personal space, except that other people are still telling you what to do. So the space is soon filled up with rants and opinions. For Africa Adventure he writes, ‘I detest all films in which animals are even slightly inconvenienced’. For Androcles the Lion he says, ‘I enjoyed the acting of the lion the most.’  For The Immortal Monster (1959) he writes, ‘NB: Note hysterical erotic attitude of dancer’. The synopsis on Wikipedia for this film is: ‘Academic researchers are chased by a nuclear-hot specimen of ancient Mayan blob’.

More worryingly, on the envelope for Light Up The Sky is this little detail: ‘While this film was being shown, a man was murdered in the car park a few yards from my office’.

The most impressive exhibit is a collection of index cards devoted to film actors. The Peltz gallery has managed to fill an entire wall with these lovingly kept little biographies, floor to ceiling. The effect is a kind of geek sublime. On top of the sheer number of the things, each card is written in tiny longhand biro. I envy the writer’s ability to get his writing so small, yet still legible.

From a sample card, on Mae West: ‘Plumply sexy, stylish, fruity and scandalous American entertainer who sidled along like a predatory costumed lobster’.

***

A news article this week reveals that 2016 has seen sales of vinyl records outstrip those of digital downloads. In fact, this is a statistic based on money spent rather than units, and vinyl is now much pricier than downloads. The popularity of streaming sites like Spotify has hit downloads, too. People are less interested in owning digital copies of albums. If it’s digital, it can stay online. The implication is that the internet is now always to hand.

Except not to hand enough. Nothing to grasp with one’s real hands. There’s currently a huge poster campaign on London transport celebrating various successful YouTubers. It’s interesting that the images in this campaign have YouTubers holding the red YouTube play button, now rendered as a physical object in their hands. This is the paradox of virtual content: it’s still made by people who inhabit bodies, and bodies need props. There are now BookTubers, YouTubers who make videos in which they review books. More often than not, they hold up hardbacks or paperbacks for the camera, rather than hold up a Kindle.

***

Tuesday 22nd November 2016. Spending most of my time in the British Library this week, researching the autumn term essay for the MA. Not so lonely, though: I bump into David Benson. Last saw him on stage at a BL event, in fact, performing selections from the Kenneth Williams diaries. The full bulk of them had just been acquired by the BL, on behalf of the public. I love that his impersonation, honed from umpteen performances of his KW stage show, could now be put to use at an event about archives.

***

Wednesday 23rd November 2016. A session with the Birkbeck counsellor. A discussion of my propensity to self-sabotage: oversleeping, procrastination, a general avoidance of things. I have the recurring fantasy of someone suddenly getting in touch with some golden offer, financial and vocational. Except I never know what form this might take.

***

Finish reading a book I’m reviewing for The Wire: Honk, Conk and Squacket: Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening. It’s an encyclopaedia of obsolete words, specifically to do with sounds and music. The world of onomatopoeia is vastly diminished these days, now that the machines have become silent. But humans still associate noises with completed processes. So the cameras on phones don’t go ‘click’ – they play ‘click’. Little cover versions of obsolescence.

***

Mid-November for critics is the Best of the Year time. I’ve been asked to declare my favourite music of 2016, but I can only think of two new-ish albums I’ve really enjoyed.

One is Laurie Anderson’s Heart of A Dog soundtrack, which is effectively the whole film without the images. But even though the film was released in 2016, the CD came out in October 2015, so I suppose it can’t count.

This leaves the Pet Shop Boys’ Super, which I adore and have played repeatedly. I now note that Super is missing from most media outlets’ Albums of 2016, despite getting good reviews on its release. The Beyonce album seems to be the token 2016 pop album; otherwise it’s all tried and tested old rockers:  Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave. Plus the last Bowie and Cohen records, the interpretation of which can’t be separated from the artists’ deaths. I had thought the Pet Shop Boys album was a welcome dash of upbeat, danceable colour and energy, amongst all the year’s gloom and morbidity. But most critics have decided that 2016 must be framed and preserved as a year of anger, darkness and despair. So perhaps Super doesn’t fit their narrative. Well, it fits my narrative.

I take no joy in being unable to name any further favourite albums. My only excuse is that I’ve just been more drawn to old music, or books, or films, or art exhibitions. It’s possibly a problem of one’s cultural inputs. I used to spend hours listening to John Peel, reading Melody Maker and flicking through the new releases in Our Price. All those things have gone now. Perhaps my problem is associating new music with vanished practices, and so need to change my habits. I feel too old to listen to Radio 1, but not old enough to listen to Radio 2.

What I have listened to is a lot of radio news, perhaps thinking that this counts as keeping in touch.  But time spent on listening to news is time not spent listening to music. Vary the diet, that’s all one can do. Notice what speaks to the heart. News is hard to avoid anyway; it’ll get to you one way or another.

Tastes change behind one’s back; palates alter with age. One never knows until one tries. Am I finally ready for experimental jazz? Is anyone?

With all that in mind, my favourite things of 2016 are as follows.

Films: Heart of a Dog. Eight Days A Week (Beatles documentary). The Neon Demon. Victoria. Love and Friendship. Author (JT LeRoy documentary). Hail Caesar!

New Books: Michael White’s Popkiss. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable. McEwan’s Nutshell. Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On. Ronald Blythe’s Stour Seasons.

Old Books: Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller.

Art: Made You Look – Dandyism & Black Masculinity (Photographers’ Gallery). Alice in Wonderland (British Library). Shakespeare in Ten Acts (BL). Magnus Arrevad – Boy Story (5 Willoughby Street). Performing For the Camera (Tate Modern).

DVDs: Lawrence of Belgravia. Akenfield.

Gig: Fingersnaps (Wallace Collection).

Events that defined the year, as opposed to favourite things: The hostage selfie. The Brexit result (regrettably).

***

Thursday 24th November 2016. Evening classes at Birkbeck: Tony Harrison’s V, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.

***

Friday 25th November 2016. After working at the London Library, I walk through Soho to find the whole district in blackness. A power cut has hit several blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue, up to Broadwick Street. A sense of  curious novelty and strangeness abounds, rather than fear. People switch on the torches on their phones and train them on their steps. Their faces are still obscured. I can’t quite see the people I’m passing, but they can’t see me either. I wonder if this is what Soho was like in the WW2 blackouts: those tales of furtive liberation, of kisses in the dark, and more.

On Lexington Street, some of the restaurants and bars have set out tea lights on the counters and tables. But not all emporiums keep candles for emergencies. I pass a darkened hairdresser’s and see there’s people still in there. I make out a hairdresser standing over her client, struggling to finish the job. A lit-up phone in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.

***

Saturday 26th November 2016. Age comes with a trail of faded friendships. I bump into someone I used to know in the British Library café. It’s someone from the early 90s, the Sarah Records phase of my life. When this happens I always take a few seconds to fully grasp the identity of the other person, my memory usually failing me. Invariably, the other person thinks I can’t remember who they are, and the encounter quickly collapses into an awkward parting of the ways.

A few moments after they’ve gone, of course, it all comes back to me. I do know exactly who they are: I just need a few more seconds, that’s all. But it’s too late. So I come away feeling I’ve done something terribly wrong.

This is one reason why I don’t go to school reunions: I can’t see how it’ll be anything but a stream of memory tests and point scoring.

Plus, I need advance warning of my surprises. This is only partly meant as a joke. Normal people have a ‘delightfully surprised’ face, easily accessed for sudden encounters. The have the face ready for reacting to surprise gifts, or indeed for surprise offers of marriage. But I am built differently. Sudden delight does not come easy to me. My reaction to most things is utter confusion.

Andy Warhol was stopped on the street every day of his life. He says somewhere that the best thing to do is just pretend that you last saw each other yesterday, rather than twenty years ago. So you just reply that you’re on the way to the cinema, or whatever. Nonchalently, matter-of-fact. You never, ever say ‘long time no see’. That risks the answer, ‘Yes. And there’s a reason for that.’

***

Sunday 27th November 2016. I browse in Waterstones, Gower Street. The success of the Ladybird parodies last Christmas has meant that this year there’s an exponential proliferation. Great toppling piles of the things. Fake Famous Five satirical books, along the lines of ‘Five Go To Brexit Island’. Spoof I-Spy books. And as with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ design a few years ago, the initial charm of the idea has given way to the less attractive symptoms of a bandwagon.

It’s too easy to think of further titles: a lazy Fighting Fantasy parody, perhaps: The Warlock of Brexit Mountain. (If this happens I will kill again).

I leaf through the music news. Some artists have their tours advertised with the promise of old hits. An exception is Kate Bush, whose new live album eschews her more obvious singles. For this she is praised. Then she mentions in an interview that she likes Theresa May. For this she is castigated. There’s a moral there about what people want from their favourite musicians, and what is allowed. Success means being cast as a character. Get the lines right.

***

Friday 2nd December 2016. To the Barbican art gallery for The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The exhibition has rather promising posters, with an androgynous blonde in a garish multi-coloured jacket, looking like a postmodern toreador. The jacket is printed with a cacophony of icons from medieval manuscripts: orbs and sceptres, medals, and so on.

So much for the poster. The exhibition itself begins well, with huge wall-mounted gold coins punctuating the rooms, each one inscribed with Adam Phillips’s pronouncements on the meaning of ‘vulgar’. The accompanying leaflet says, ‘the exhibition begins on the lower level’, but there’s no indication of irony about this statement. And that seems to be the flaw: the exhibition takes itself too seriously. To display works by Alexander McQueen surely invites comparison with the major show at the V&A recently. In which case, The Vulgar comes over as a lot less fun. It sets out to examine the history of ostentatious fashion, yet without the lighting effects and pumping music one associates with catwalks, the clothes here seem curiously cold and lifeless.

I wonder if this is the fault of the venue, as the Barbican is currently going through a phase of cool self-consciousness. It’s so aware of its hip Brutalist architecture that it can barely say anything at all. Fashion is the Botox of thought.

I think about the way The Vulgar gestures towards behaviour. What does the Barbican hold to be the opposite of vulgar? The answer is perhaps found in the centre’s poster campaign to advertise its membership scheme. One is captioned ‘for lovers’: an image of two youngish people standing on one of the walkways around the centre. He is a lightly bearded man in jeans and a blue suit jacket, she is a Zooey Deschanel lookalike, in a vintage red dress with a white lacey collar, her dark hair in a heavy fringe. They both wear glasses, though her frames are slightly oversized in the present hipster manner. I wonder how this couple met, and think of an update on the personal ad joke in Annie Hall: ‘Must like Brutalism, David Foster Wallace and sodomy’.

On a separate poster, ‘Membership for Gastronomers’, flaunts an even more fashion-conscious young man, posing in one of the Barbican eateries. His beard is worn in the full George Bernard Shaw bushiness, joined up with a ‘man bun’, being long hair rolled up and balanced tidily on the crown, like a  miniature hair beret. Fenella H tells me you can now buy fake man-buns. A hip toupee. This poster boy wears a cream jacket over a multi-coloured patterned shirt, set off with a rather nice purple hankerchief in the pocket. I’d call these latter aspects dandyish, if it wasn’t for his beard, hair and blue jeans signifying ‘fashion’ rather than ‘style’. Dandies are anti-fashion and pro-style.

The dilemma for young people has always been how to stand out yet join in at the same time. And given these literal poster kids are advertising Barbican membership, the message is about belonging, getting it right. In other words, not being vulgar. In a few decades to come these posters will be useful for scholars of 2016 fashion. The trouble is, right now they serve to consolidate the Barbican’s self-image as a place of cool, and thus not the best place to host a show about vulgarity.

I think a better venue would be the V&A or Somerset House, where the fogeyish sense of crumbing empires defuses any claims to trendiness. This is why the McQueen and Blow shows worked so well in those places. Still, The Vulgar is a noble attempt nonetheless.

***

Monday 6th December 2016. To the panelled rooms and stone staircases of 28 Russell Square, for a one-off Birkbeck event: a lecture by David James on ‘critical solace’. His examples are McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Sebald’s Austerlitz. Much of his talk is heavy on the theoretical, and a lot of what he says would have gone straight over my head a few years ago, until I started hitting heavy books by dead Frenchmen. Today my brain is a little more acclimatised to such theory, though my dyspraxia means I still have the urge to put a lecturer on ‘pause’, so I can properly chew over what’s just been said.

Still, there are consolations for slowness, too. It’s well-known that obituaries are written in advance and kept on file, ready to be revised and published within minutes of their subject’s final breath. Thus in the event of a celebrity death, torrents of words and pictures appear like a magic trick, as if to defy death with a surge in production by the living. ‘Tributes pour in’, but what’s really being paid tribute to is the swift industry of the obituary editors. So for those of us who aren’t as fast at writing as others, it’s heartening to see the occasional mistake made through haste . This is a sentence from CNN’s Castro obituary this week:

Fidel Castro outlived six US presidents, [[[NOTE: change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]]]

***

Then to Gordon Square for a general event about PHDs. First year PHD students answer questions for those who, like myself, are interested in doing a PHD at Birkbeck. At the event, one of the tutors explains how no one does a PHD for the money; it’s common for a funded three years to lead to a fourth unfunded ‘writing up’ year, and the student risks living on ‘bread and water’, as one tutor tonight puts it.

The deadline for applying for the main full-time PHD bursary, in time for an Autumn 2017 start, turns out to be this January. Next month. And it involves putting together a 2000 word proposal. I’m already writing a 5000 word essay for the MA. And this diary is taking me too long as it is… (I may have to put it on hold for a while, or put out a briefer version)

I know I want to go straight into a PHD once the MA is done in September, so as not to lost momentum.  I also know I want to do it full-time, so I can finally treat the whole business like a proper job. With a sustainable wage (well, a modest 16k), paid for something I’m good at and actually enjoy, the self-esteem will make all the difference. The only thing is, I need to improve my working speed.

***

Thursday 8th December 2016. A Birkbeck class on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Finished Thing. The Girl is a quickly-canonised thing: a debut novel from 2013, initially published by a tiny independent press, showered with awards, republished by Faber, and already a set text in universities.

Some of my fellow students say they find McBride’s experimental prose more impenetrable than the Beckett and Joyce texts which inspired it – and these are people who’ve written essays on Ulysses. My own reaction veers toward seeing it as a kind of modernist revival text. I worry if that can be read as retreating away from contemporary experience. But then, that’s the dilemma of revivalism full stop. Wanting the new to be more like the old. But the class consensus is that the novel’s a worthy accomplishment, and a gift to any discussion about the purpose of novels.


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