23 May 2020

When I joined Twitter a decade ago, I remember a sense of acute thrill that I was discovering all these people with the same niche interests as me, and that they were reading, writing, watching and listening to stuff I’d never heard of, and never would have heard of without them. Finding your niche online is so commonplace now that it’s easy to forget that initial thrill; it seems like a right to find friends who are also interested in the same weird, esoteric or weird shit you are. Well, Twitter has changed. Last week I logged on and it seemed there was little else but an ongoing circular discourse about hiring cleaners during a pandemic. It wasn’t just so patently all in bad faith, it was tedious as fuck, life-draining.

That sense of sharing interests, broadening your reading, and discovering new obsessions seems to have retreated to where it used to live; blogs and newsletters. Sometimes it feels a little self-indulgent to do yourself, maybe, and yet I’ve realised that I always look forward to seeing what other people are thinking about and enjoying. During the current coronavirus lockdown I’ve been so grateful to get daily emails from BOOKS PECKHAM, London’s best second-hand bookshop, whose daily CORONA SANITY RECOMMENDATIONS have been done exactly what they say on the tin. I have talked before about Jay Springett’s excellent podcast 301 Permanently Moved, which is bringing new life to the aural periodical, but just as interesting are his weekly notes on what he’s been reading, watching and playing. 

So in this spirit, I’m going to start bringing you semi-regular updates of good stuff online I’ve been reading, watching and listening to, in the hope we can escape the bluebirdhellsite’s vertiginous centrifugal force. Do let me know what you think of this, or any of my weeknotes, in the comments below, and especially recommend me new stuff you think I’ll like. These posts will be in addition to the weekly(ish) essays, and I’ll probably make these weeknotes available for paid subscribers normally, with occasional public posts – you can subscribe here for $5 a month. 

1. Love and Labor on Sexing History

I’m a big fan of the podcast Sexing History, a rare and pleasing combination of queer and dry. It’s a well-researched, slightly academic-in-tone podcast (I prefer mine banter-free) examining sex and gender in recent US history. Highlights from past seasons for me included Let’s Dance!, an examination of the belly-dancing craze of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and what it said about white, middle-American attitudes towards race and Middle Eastern identities. Sex Over the Phone examines the economics as well as the sexual implications of the phone sexline, a once-flourishing sector of the sex industry now nearly extinguished by the internet. But this week’s episode was particularly good, and moving, on the traditions and histories of Black midwifery in the US. 

There was a thriving culture of Black midwifery during the first half of the twentieth century. Experiences of racism and maltreatment within the medical establishment meant many women favoured Black midwives to hospitals, and the care was often better, with traditional cultures centring the mother rather than the needs of the doctors in birth care. The podcast uses a lot of first-person testimony, allowing it to explain how racism, especially in the South following the Civil Rights Era, actively worked to destroy that long-held culture, forcing Black midwives through impossible bureaucratic hoops to keep practicing. The result was literally lethal for Black Americans; the infant mortality rate for Black babies is more than twice that of white babies in the US, and Black children are almost four times more likely to die from complications with low birthweight than white babies. Yet the story is changing, through the reintroduction of Black midwives, as well as doulas and alternative birthing, prenatal, and neonatal care. 

2. Jeremy Deller on Suite (212)

I feel like there’s sometimes a bit of a sniffy tone around discussion of the work of Jeremy Deller, especially in the art world. People suspect him of having a somewhat exploitative relationship towards the popular culture and social movements that he makes his subjects, or he gets lumped in with artists like Grayson Perry, “complicating” working class culture and people for a middle class audience. There’s certainly a case to be made, if only because of the nature of the system in which his art is displayed — that very same art world who themselves produce culture and value from discussing how his work is exploitative… spend very long in the art world and you’ll see it’s full of these recursive arguments, all of which generally put far too much emphasis on the importance and cultural power of the art world. I like his work, which was some of the first contemporary art that spoke to me as a teenager. Art that speaks to teenagers is too readily dismissed but I think it’s a good metric of if “there’s something there” or not. It’s certainly unfair to compare him to Grayson Perry, who I think is much more cynical, as I argued here.

I was glad, then, to hear him in conversation with Juliet Jacques on Suite (212), where they discussed his work in some detail. It was fascinating to hear him talking about his 2018 film “Everybody In The Place - An Incomplete History of Britain 1984 -1992”, broadcast on BBC Four last year. The documentary takes place in a classroom, where we eavesdrop on Deller himself teaching a group of sixth-formers about the roots, peak, and legacy of acid house music, its relationship with Chicago and Detroit House music and Black soundsystems in the UK, state repression and policing and the 1984 miners’ strike. One of the most interesting things Deller mentions is the production process; the film was commissioned by art world megalith Frieze, and paid for, in part, by Gucci, meaning he had enough money to clear copyright permissions for music samples that would otherwise be out of reach for an artist. However BBC Four, despite acquiring the film, were extremely hesitant about screening it. When they finally did, it became their most watched programme amongst the Holy Grail of the BBC commissioning process: the youth market. Anyone who’s interacted with BBC commissioning will be unsurprised to hear this discrepancy between what young people enjoy, and what the BBC think young people enjoy. Thankfully filmmakers like Deller hold the intelligence of teenagers and young people in much higher regard than BBC bureau-creatives.

Rewatching the film on youtube recently (where much of the samples are missing, I’m afraid) I was struck by this beautiful comment from a viewer, Mark Cole:

“Please I'm not a nut before rave we all went to the football and had mass brawls fired up on cheep alcohol .The some lads came back from Amsterdam with MDAM or e,s an the whole demographics of England change from drunkenness and fighting to loved up tree huggers .It was heaven on earth this is the best way to explain it no fear at all when you went out to an event, Can the younger generations even understand what that would be like today.” 

Beautiful. That’s a story I’ve heard before — I don’t know how accurate it is — that the rave scene of the so-called ‘Second Summer of Love’ actually puncture the English football hooligan scene, a recruitment ground for fascists at the time. Whatever the extent to which that’s true, it was a key influence in writing about the political implications of hallucinogens in my last book, Red Tory.

Deller and Jacques also discuss the first work I saw of his, when I was a teenager, the incredible eponymous film about the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, a conflict between striking miners and the state at the site of a picketline at a coking plant in Orgreave. At the time, in the fetid British press, it was depicted as a sign of unruly and violent nature of the strikers. In reality, it was another crime to lay at the feet of that brutal wing of state power, the South Yorkshire Police. This was the same police force who whose gross negligence result in the Hillsborough disaster (and the same press who covered their back. Years later, they were forced to pay out almost half a million pounds in damages to miners they’d fitted up at Orgreave, but of course, by then it was too late.

Deller organised a re-enactment of the strike, using former miners as well as amateur battle re-enactors. One fascinating revelation in the conversation was regarding the politics of the re-enactors — Deller implies they were conservative, with a small c, at least — and the miners, and the degree to which the press lies about mining communities being hostile and violent still struck the fear of God into the re-enactors 15 years after the end of the strike. This had a material effect upon the production, as the day before shooting the miners, who were due to play miners, and the re-enactors, due to play SYP, were mixed up to allay fears that the miners would go too far.

I’ve had a long obsession, since I was a child, in fact, with historical re-enactment. In some mystical future when magazines pay decent fees for stories, I’d love to spend a few months trailing a re-enactment group, to interview members about their relationship towards history. But give the show a listen. Suite (212) is a jewel in the crown of the British cultural left, and it is releasing interviews with artists and writers for free on their soundcloud during lockdown. If you have a couple of quid/bucks/euros, please chip them some to enable their volunteers to keep producing the sort of intelligent, engaging cultural criticism you struggle to find in mainstream broadcast media.

3. Qualities of Earth by Rebecca May Johnson

I’m starting work on a new book at the moment. It’s very early days, but it’s about the relationship between homosexuality, sadomasochism, and beauty. So for research, I’m reading a lot of food writing. If that sounds like a non-sequitur, well, it isn’t. I think food writers struggle with the same problems that sex writers struggle with, which is how to depict sensual experience without descending into a detached escapism. Food, like sex, can be such an escapism, transforming, transporting experience, and so rich in romantic pleasures, that it’s all too easy to write about it detached from its material base. You have to wind back from indulging both yourself and the reader, yet still acknowledge that sensual and, dare I say it, enjoyable component of eating/fucking. One of my favourite food writers is Rebecca May Johnson, who I discovered, if I’m not mistaken, through her tinyletter Ways of Eating. This week Granta published her piece Qualities of Earth on allotment culture and what this patch of land has taught her. I hope she won’t mind me posting this extract:

...Allotment earth is like the cache on a public computer, it holds too much information. I feel like a haruspex, reading entrails as I pick through the things I’ve found there – things that have become internal to the plot because of those who were here before me. It is an almost gruesomely intimate process and summons one-sided conversations with people I can only know obliquely through what they have left behind. Buried objects retain their potency after you have forgotten them. I can sense half-realised intentions, am frustrated by their carelessness and bad decisions, and hear the dim echo of an emotion...

4. Other things I’ve watched

The new Ryan Murphy show, Hollywood. The less said about this, the better. I loved the fucked-up trash of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and I enjoyed Pose, and for the first couple of episodes, I thought I was getting into Hollywood. But the final episode is not merely anachronistic, it’s blind to the structural nature of American racism and homophobia so such an extent I think it actually valorises it, and minimises the truly destructive nature of it. The reason Rock Hudson never came out was not a moral failing on Rock Hudson’s part. From a story-telling point of view, it’s also a catastrophe. The only excuse I could possibly imagine for making it is that homophobia and racism is still so rife that studio execs butchered the ending in order to whitewash themselves, but the fact they commissioned his earlier work suggests this is unlikely. Ugh, just don’t put yourself through it.

5. Stuff I’ve done

The current series of Bad Gays, the podcast on problematic queers through history that I co-host with Ben Miller, comes to an end next week. This Tuesday we released an episode I wrote on former Smith’s frontman and quite obvious [redacted], Morrissey.

The Dutch arts organisation Perdu have had to put their physical programme on hold due to coronavirus, so instead are resorting to snail mail to send out letters written by artists and writers that explore, in various ways, epistolic writing. They very kindly asked me contribute, and my letter will be sent this week, so if you want one, please hurry and order now! Money raised will go towards helping their programme.

And here’s what I’ve been listening to this week: Canciu Ronda, by Jonas De Murias 

That’s all for this week. From next week the lockdown here in Barcelona will be lifted. We’ll be able to meet friends for the first time since mid-March. I’m excited about sharing a vermut and having a conversation with more than just one person at a time again! Hopefully there’ll be more stories to tell you then. Until then, if you don’t already subscribe but want to read more essays by me, or get these weeknotes emails on a weekly basis, please do subscribe!