I apologise for leaving such a hiatus with the diary. The cause can be ascribed to the usual cocktail of moods: two parts anhedonia to one part general resentment. Lately the majority of my waking hours have been occupied with puzzling, if not to say brooding, over the more unpromising aspects of my situation: aged forty-six, single, living in a rented room, on a PhD course but not teaching (yet), so no wage, no savings, and generally feeling unattached to the world. Actually, I should just be honest and stop that list at ‘aged forty-six’: that’s really the problem. What is a forty-six-year-old? Hard to tell. I don’t think I’m a typical one. At least, I hope not. Best not succumb to the off-the-peg malaise of the midlife crisis. It is better to love one’s own unique version of inhumanity than try to belong to The Commonplace Depression Club.
Here is Mrs Woolf in her diary of 23 July 1927, reporting on her brother-in-law Clive Bell’s midlife whine:
‘My dear Virginia,’ [says Mr Bell], ‘life is over. There’s no good denying it. We’re 45. I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m unspeakably bored. I know my own reactions. I know what I’m going to say. I’m not interested in a thing. Pictures bore me. I take up a book and put it down. No one’s interested in what I think any more.’
A couple of days later, Bell is rather more cheerful. He is boasting about dating a twenty-something actress (his marriage is very much an ‘open’ one). The phrase ‘midlife crisis’ wasn’t around in the 1920s, but the clichés were clearly already in place. Woolf’s thoughts on this episode sum it up: ‘It is all so silly, shallow, and selfish’.
Best get on with things: make things, write things, support the worthy works of others, boycott Amazon (easier to do once one reads about their working conditions), and don’t drop litter. Suicide, like pollution, is just an extreme version of litter-dropping: unfair on those who have to do the clearing up.
Friday 8th December 2017. I borrow a first edition of Robert McAlmon’s story collection from 1925, Distinguished Air – Grim Fairy Tales. Only 115 copies; they mostly went to McAlmon’s friends in Paris, including James Joyce and Ezra Pound. McAlmon is meant to have typed up the last fifty pages of the manuscript of Ulysses.
The ‘fairy tales’ of the subtitle is a pun: these are fictionalised reports of expat gay life in Berlin. Full of gay & drug slang, including ‘queer’, ‘camp’, ‘coked up to the eyeballs’, and ‘gay’ in the homosexual sense. Perhaps even more interesting is ‘One More to Set Her Up’, which appeared in McAlmon’s 1923 collection A Companion Volume. There, ‘camp’ is used to described the flamboyant behaviour of a heavy-drinking heterosexual woman, albeit one who hangs out with gay men.
Tuesday 12 December 2017. Sending Christmas cards. I still enjoy doing this, but suspect that many of the recipients do not care either way. That old insult – ‘they’re no longer on my Christmas list’ – is now an anachronism.
Thursday 14 December 2017. I read ‘Cat Person’, a short story published in the New Yorker which has gone ‘viral’ on social media. It’s a contemporary tale: a young US student dates an older man, then breaks off the relationship after an awkward night in bed. The twist is how quickly the jilted man’s feelings turn from heartbroken to hostile via his texts to her, though there’s also an implication that the medium of text messaging itself plays a part. The rise in instant communication means that not getting a reply has a more intense meaning.
I heard from a Birkbeck creative writing tutor that the rise of mobile phones has made contemporary plots more difficult, hence the surge in historical fiction. But modern technology has plenty of scope for plots of its own, just different sorts of plot. An angry character used to require huge amounts of justification. Now all it takes is to have them glance at Twitter.
Friday 15th December 2017. To Leeds University for my first giving of a ‘paper’ at an academic conference. The event is ‘New Work in Modernist Studies 2017’, as organised by BAMS, the British Association of Modernist Studies. It’s essentially a gathering of PhD students whose theses involve modernist themes, and each paper is meant to be a ten-minute ‘research position’. I’m on at 10am as part of a panel titled ‘Queering the Modern’. The other papers on offer during the day include Djuna Barnes and Eimear McBride. The exception is the ‘keynote’ speaker Hope Wolf, who gives an excellent ‘plenary’ lecture on her Sussex Modernism exhibition, which I saw. Plus there’s a panel on jobs in academia. The overall message of which is that it’s very hard to get one.
I’m still getting used to the language of conferences. ‘Plenary’ means a kind of summary of the day’s proceedings, while ‘keynote’ means the main speaker of the day – often a person of some accomplishment. I think of the ‘note’ in ‘keynote’ as a pound note, because a keynote speaker is often the only contributor to actually get paid.
I like how Leeds University has a proper ivory tower on its campus – the Parkinson building. The School of English is a nice mirror of Birkbeck’s School of Arts: a row of Victorian terraced houses, knocked through.
I speak in the Alumni Room. On the walls are framed photos of notable former students. One is Richard Hoggart, he of The Uses of Literacy. This is quite expected. Another is Chris Pine, the young American actor who plays Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek films. This is less expected. It seems Mr Pine was once on some Gatsby-like exchange programme. I wonder if he can do the accent.
I devise a new acronym that I find myself using when taking notes in lectures. NYLM. Pronounced ‘nilm’. It stands for No, You’ve Lost Me.
The term can be used as both an adjective and a verb. To wit:
‘What did you think of that lecture?’
‘A bit NYLM in places.’
‘I know what you mean. I started to NYLM-out myself towards the end.’
I stay overnight at the Avenue Hotel in the Harehills district. A mistake. The tiny room may be a mere £25 a night, but the walls are paper thin. A late-night Christmas party is in full swing in the rooms around me. It is Trial By Endless Shouting In Northern Accents. I get little sleep.
Saturday 16th December 2017. I spend a day wandering around Leeds, including drinks with Kate H from Derby, whom I met at the conference. She shows me the cosy little Henry Moore Research Library, next to the Leeds Art Gallery. We are the only ones there. It’s open to all, but no one seems to know it’s there.
Saturday 23rd December 2017. To the ICA to see The Florida Project, an arthouse drama about poverty-stricken children and single mothers who live in pastel-coloured ‘slum’ motels. One of the pleasures of going to the cinema is witnessing the response of strangers. As the closing credits roll, one of my fellow patrons laughs his head off in derision and offers a vocal critique to the room: ‘What f—ing rubbish!’
Another patron down the front, an elderly man with his wife, turns around and addresses this unkind giggler: ‘Why are you laughing? It’s a tragedy!’ He is furious. For one exciting moment it looks like there’s going to a be a shouting match over the merits of the film. The older man’s wife is placatory, however: ‘Look,’ she tells him in the kind of half-whispered tone that hints at a history of similar interventions, ‘different people respond in different ways. No need to get upset.’ As we’re leaving, she asks some of the other cinemagoers what they thought, in the hope of recruiting support for her husband.
She doesn’t get to me, but I’m irritatingly half-and-half on this one. The Florida Project definitely lays on some sentimental manipulation with a trowel, with much dwelling on real tears shed by real children. But then Dickens went for this effect, and so did those Depression-era American movies which are clearly an influence, films where sooty-faced, cap-wearing urchins get up to No Good in New York slums. Whether The Florida Project oversteps its mark is really down to the onlooker’s taste. In fact, tonight’s elderly defendant shares the majority view of the critics, so I hope he discovers this and takes solace. It is the loud scoffer who is in the minority. But I can see both sides: the script has moral problems, but visually, with its rich sense of life in the environs of Disney World, the film is memorable and original.
25th December 2017. Christmas with Mum in Suffolk, just the two of us.
26th December 2017. Boxing Day sees us visit my cousin Olivia at her farmhouse in Layer Marney, Essex. It’s a contemporary note that Olivia is not a farmer but a TV producer. Though she does keep chickens. No one discusses Brexit at the dinner table.
We took a look at the nearby church and the Tudor gatehouse. The church porch has a list of the local electoral roll on a clipboard. Endless dog-walkers.
Friday 5th January 2018. To the Barbican with Shanthi to see Brad’s Status. Ben Stiller plays a self-regarding middle class man having a midlife crisis, again. Michael Sheen is very funny as a schoolmate who’s become a Boris Johnson-type figure: barely competent at the top jobs he’s managed to blag, yet his talent at maintaining a popular media profile means that he’ll always get away with murder. When people say ‘nothing succeeds like success’, they really mean nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.
Much is made of the fact that having a house in Sacramento, CA is apparently a sign of social failure. To many British people, having a house in even the dullest part of California would be a success. Partly because of the sunshine, but mostly because even a modest house in America seems exotic, not to say more spacious, to someone in a crumbling semi in Guildford. There’s a good reason why the phrase ‘The American Dream’ is in Western cultural parlance, while ‘The English Dream’ is not. The English Dream is just to make it to the end of the day without being too socially embarrassed.
Brad’s Status has its moments. There’s a scene in which the Ben Stiller character is waiting in an airport for his flight. He looks around at the other men slumped on the benches around him, and mourns at the state of being a fifty-ish man per se: greying boys betrayed by their bodies, defeated blokes, tortoise-like wrecks of humanity taking solace in grizzled beards and puffy anoraks. It’s a sentiment out of Philip Larkin.
Thursday 11th January 2018. The transcript of my MA arrives in the post. I can now officially say I have a postgraduate degree from Birkbeck, University of London, being a Master of Arts in Contemporary Literature and Culture, classified with distinction (the MA equivalent of first class). The ceremony is in April.
Monday 15th January 2018. To the Rio for Molly’s Game. Usual Aaron Sorkin fare: characters spouting snappy quips at each other. The father, played by Kevin Costner, has a big speech to his offspring at the end. It looks clumsy and formulaic compared to the father’s speech in Call Me By Your Name. Indeed, I thought at first that Molly was hallucinating when she bumped into her father in this scene: it feels that contrived. Still, I like the Sorkin dialogue, which is what one expects, and gets.
Tuesday 16th January 2018. My first visit to the National Archives in Kew. A modernist building right by Kew Gardens, which has its own moat. The security is even more diligent than that of the British Library: pencils only, but you’re not allowed to bring your own pencil sharpener.
Monday 22nd January 2018. With Shanthi S and Rose B to the Rio for Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri. Not up there with the director’s earlier work In Bruges, but the same mix of brutal black comedy, intriguing plot twists, and sudden shocks of violence. The film is essentially idiosyncratic and of its own world, yet it touches on the current feeling of anger over clear cases of injustice. In London, a group of Grenfell Tower activists have hired three vans with electronic screens: ’71 dead’, ‘And still no arrests?’, ‘How come?’.
Wednesday 24th January 2018. Mark E Smith dies. I have a vivid memory of decorating the family Christmas tree in December 1988, to the sound of my first Fall album, I Am Kurious Oranj – bought on cassette, probably from Andy’s Records in Ipswich. This was before I started immersing myself more fully in the world of indie music. I had been intrigued by the band’s connection with the Michael Clark ballet at the Edinburgh Festival that year. ‘Festival Ballet Entryism’ – a Fall title in waiting.
I was also fond of the 1991 album Shift-Work, with the unexpectedly Prince-like song ‘Rose’. Side Two is titled ‘Notebooks Out, Plagiarists’. Mr Smith really was a complete one-off. The world is duller without him.
Thursday 25th January 2018. The first anniversary of Tom’s death. His partner Charis holds a gathering at The Star on Hackney Downs, close to where she’s recording with her band, The Curse of Lono. Ewan Bruce also there. Bus back to Dalston with Charis’s drummer friend Billie.
Studying literature for six years has made me rather intolerant of clunky prose. The Guardian today runs a news story about Mark E Smith’s death. It is so badly written I start to feel faint. The sub-headline reads: ‘Famously fractious frontman had been suffering from ill health throughout 2017’. The opening paragraphs then include these two sentences, back to back:
Smith famously once said: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” He was a famously prolific musician…
Repetition aside, ‘famously’ should be avoided full stop. Even the Guardian’s style guide asks its writers to decline from using the term. ‘Famous’ is also frowned upon. They point out, rather reasonably:
If something’s famous, you don’t need to tell people; if you need to tell people something’s famous, it isn’t.
Worse still is the assumption that the reader shares the same incurious position. For a man as consistently original as Mr Smith, it seems all the more irksome to mark his death with stale writing.
Another irksome journalistic phrase: ‘The greatest author you’ve never heard of.’ Says who? Everyone’s not heard of someone.
Saturday 27th January 2018. To the ICA for a screening of the Armenian arthouse film The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). The screening sells out, and there’s a huge queue to get in. On a Saturday afternoon too. Some people like to go to football matches, and some like to go to a cinema to watch an Armenian art film that’s been available on DVD for years. An encouraging sight for those who worry about attracting an audience. Be as experimental as you like: the good will out.
Friday 2nd February 2018. To the Curzon Soho to see The Post. Entertaining enough, in that self-consciously ‘vintage’ way that Spielberg now goes in for. Nixon may as well be a CGI monster. Tom Hanks is refreshingly cast against type, swearing and bullying. The critics have overpraised it, proving that one way of securing good reviews is to portray journalists as heroes. Perhaps for balance it should be seen on a double bill with highlights from the Leveson Inquiry.
Saturday 10th February 2018. To Senate House Library to see the exhibition Queer Between The Covers. This is the exhibition that’s related to the conference I’m appearing at in March. The library is displaying a fascinating range of books on the theme of queerness in history, going back to a 1710 account of the Mollies Club. There’s the lyrics to a broadside about the Boulton and Park case in 1871 (the cross-dressing Londoners, whose letters contained the earliest known written appearance of ‘camp’). One grumbles about the saturation of news coverage today, but at least one doesn’t have to endure a strained ditty written about every single event.
In the 1980s section there’s a copy of the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1987). This is the progressive children’s book about a little girl living with two dads. It’s thought to be one of the books that triggered Clause 28, the clumsy Tory law which banned anything that could be construed as ‘promoting’ homosexuality.
What I didn’t realise until today was that (a) the book was originally Danish, which explains a lot, frankly, and (b) it’s entirely told in photographs. While one can’t have sympathy for the reactionaries behind the clause, there is something problematic about using a photographic format for telling stories to small children. I find myself wondering why books for that age range tend to have drawings in the first place. There’s something about the pre-pubescent mind that favours cartoons and drawn illustrations rather than photographs and live-action films. If in doubt, use drawings of talking bears in aprons.
Photographic narratives, on the other hand, suggest the harsher, more teenage emotions of voyeurism, romantic angst, the loss of solipsism, and the cold cruelty of reality itself (‘reality is so unfair!’). It was no wonder that the photo-story became a popular form for teenage magazines like My Guy. I know I’m obsessed with style over content, but I wonder if Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin would have caused the same fuss had it been drawn by, say, Quentin Blake, rather than told in photos.
Presumably in 1980s Denmark the book was thought as groovy and worthy in that relaxed Scandinavian way. To Tory councillors in Britain, at the height of the AIDS panic, it must have looked like a crime scene.
Today, most people in Britain are relaxed about gay parenting, though, paradoxically, they’re more uneasy about the use of children in photographs full stop.
Wednesday 14 February 2018. I finish revising my application for one of the in-house PhD scholarships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and send it off via email. Here’s hoping.
This is my second annual attempt. Last year I was told of the outcome in early April. I was unsuccessful in winning one of the 12 scholarships, though they said I had made it down to the ‘the final 15’. I was offered a fees-only grant instead, which I accepted. This time, I have an MA, and a prize, from the same place that’s awarding the scholarships. I’m currently writing two papers for conferences (both unpaid). This surely has to be good for my chances.
The full scholarship pays a wage as well as the fees. It’s just £16k, but that’s more than many freelance writers manage to earn. To be finally paid a sustainable wage at the age of forty-six, for doing a form of work I have been told I am objectively good at, and which I enjoy, would mark a huge turning point in my life. Well, we’ll see.
Thursday 15 February 2018. No sooner do I submit my application for funding than I come across something I wish I’d included. In Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Feel Free, there’s a piece (pp. 181-86) on the artist Mark Bradford’s Niagara (2005). This is a video work consisting of a single shot of a young black man walking away from the camera along a tough-looking LA street. Dressed in a tatty vest and bright yellow shorts, the man sways his hips and arms in an ostentatious, self-possessed manner as he moves further into the distance. Mr Bradford’s title is a deliberate reference to the 1953 film Niagara, in which Marilyn Monroe walks away from the camera during a similarly long shot, the swaying movement of her hips being the intended focus.
Zadie Smith’s essay argues that the walk in the Mark Bradford video is an example of camp as ‘the nuclear option of the disenfranchised’. She alludes to the tradition of the slave’s shim-sham dance (or the shimmy), which she calls ‘as camp as any movement on earth’. I later find out that Mr Bradford is himself black and gay, which further contextualises the video.
Best of all is Ms Smith’s definition of camp in this respect: ‘being seen in all your glory, and within the terms of your own self-conception’. Camp is ‘doing more than is necessary with less than you need’ (p. 181). It springs from a lack, an exclusion, a margin.
Monday 20th February 2018. I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, her memoir of becoming a very modern kind of mother. Her partner, Harry Dodge, grew up as female but now lives as a masculine non-binary person, as opposed to transgender: ‘I’m not going anywhere’, he says.
It’s one of those books that’s been so talked about in certain quarters that reading it feels like joining the moshpit at a carefully-curated music festival. My edition’s cover has quotes from Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein, their names qualified not as musicians but as writers of memoirs themselves. A different edition has a quote from Emma ‘Harry Potter’ Watson on the cover. Publishing is getting more and more like this: before one gets to the text, one is acutely aware of being targeted by the cover blurbs. It’s the effect of algorithms.
The book’s title is based on the Ship of Theseus paradox, which questions if something remains the same when it has its constituent elements replaced. This too has different generational resonances. Maggie Nelson’s references reveal her to be a serious, forty-ish American academic with an interest in queer identity. So there’s lots of nods to Barthes, Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick. When I think about the Argo paradox I think about JJ Abrams’s book S, but also Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. Talking to a younger British person about this, she says she’s never heard of Only Fools and Horses but does think of the Sugababes, the 2000s pop group whose members were substituted one by one. So I come away from the Maggie Nelson book thinking it needs more Sugababes and more Del Boy. Perhaps that’s a book I should write.
Wednesday 21st February 2018. Tom’s birthday, the second since his death. I keep thinking of the Michael Rosen poem about not wanting people to say if he’s mourning too much or too little.
Friday 23rd February 2018. The university union is on strike over pension cuts, and Birkbeck is affected. Some PhD classes have been cancelled as a result. The main library in Torrington Square is open today, but as there’s a fairly persuasive picket line outside, I feel the decent option is to study elsewhere. I look through the glass at a number of students who crossed the picket and wonder at their motivations. Was their need to use the library really that paramount? Are they grudgeful of being denied services they paid for with their fees? Or are they foreign students who feel that morality only applies at home (also known as the Las Vegas effect)? Hard to tell. French students in particular can’t possibly plead ignorance of the concept of strikes.
It’s freezing cold. Outside SOAS the strikers are warming themselves around a proper iron brazier, full of blazing coals. It’s like something out of a documentary on the Miners’ Strike. Certainly, the 1980s’ sense of a nation rigidly divided feels like it’s back. Lots of money swilling around, yet it’s hogged by a small amount of people at the top, who then talk about ‘necessary cuts’.
I listen to an interview with the comedian Diane Morgan, as part of Adam Buxton’s podcast. She’s very funny, and quite refreshing with some of her opinions: not seeing the appeal of having children, and not finding the private life of Woody Allen an obstacle to enjoying his films.
Podcasts are now everywhere: I keep seeing people I know getting involved with new ones. They’re often based around interviews or talks. Spoken word content is public domain, thus sidestepping the question of musical royalties. Though it does also mean that a lot of non-BBC podcasts use ugly library music as a theme tune.
Unlike printed interviews, podcasts do away with the arduous transcription process: one just gives the raw audio to the audience. The only problem is, of course, that a huge amount of them are full of people talking over each other, or rambling for too long. Another recent development is the need to have little adverts at the beginning. Russell Brand, who is currently a student at SOAS, now does a serious, academic-level discussion show which is slightly undermined by his having to advertise a condom company at the start.
The term is now out of date, too. ‘Pods’, being iPods, are now on the way out; ‘phonecasts’ would be more accurate.
Tuesday 27th February 2018. I’m reading Friends of Promise (1989) by Michael Shelden. It’s the story of Cyril Connelly’s literary magazine Horizon, which ran through the 1940s and featured pretty much all the notable British writers and artists of the day. Waugh’s The Loved One first appeared in its pages. In 1941 a fundraising notice appeared called ‘Begging Bowl’, inspired by the truly desperate situation of one of the writers – Dylan Thomas. Readers were asked to help by sending in extra money to the writers they especially liked:
‘If you particularly enjoy anything in Horizon, send the author a tip. Not more than One Hundred Pounds: that would be bad for his character. Not less than Half-a-Crown: that would be bad for yours. Horizon authors are in our judgement underpaid. By sending them gratuities the readers are forming themselves into a new patron class’ (Shelden p. 81).
It proves that today’s internet donation services, like Patreon, are nothing new.
Wednesday 28th February 2018. Heavy snow hits London, strikes are still hitting Birkbeck, but the London Library remains open and cosy.
Ms K the landlady teaches me to turn a dial on the house boiler to a setting that will prevent the pipes from freezing. The setting is a little icon of a snowflake. These days ‘snowflake’ has become slang, defined in the OED as ‘an overly sensitive or easily offended person, or one who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics’. It is hard not to feel that even the central heating is judging me.
Dalston High Street has a modest layer of snow, though the east side of the street, which gets the sun, has already melted dry. Each of the letters in the sign for the Rio Cinema is individually snow-capped. It’s like the logo on the Christmas editions of The Beano.
Saturday 3rd March 2018. The rest of the country is still suffering from the weather, with tales of commuters trapped overnight in trains. On Dalston High Street, the snow has melted, but there’s now an unappealing patina of mud-brown slush. One now longs for rain, though just enough to clean the pavements.
Begging Bowl. If you enjoy this ad-free diary and its twenty years of archives, please help support it with a donation to the Diary Fund. Not too much: that would be bad for my character. Thank you.