[Before we start, I’m jubilant that the Equal Marriage Bill has been passed by the Commons. Obviously, I hope that the Lords don’t now mess this up, and that (Mostly)-Straight-People’s-Views-On-Gay-Marriage Day is followed by an equally successful (Mostly)-Straight-People-Views-On-Gay-Marriage Day, Now With Coronets. Anyway, enough. I opened the gin to watch the result, and I don’t like Bercow’s face.]
A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to attend the first study day of Oxford’s new interdisciplinary discussion network, ‘Spotlight on Celebrity’. The study day, hosted in Oxford’s new Humanities Building, brought together researchers of all levels, from a wide range of disciplines including English, Theology, Music, Modern Languages, History, Classics and Medieval Studies. Some of my favourite papers dealt with such diverse topics as the Soviet media’s presentation of sports stars in the USSR (this was brilliant, andmade me want to research sport), and the local celebrity of (frequently grotesque) ballad singers throughout nineteenth-century British cities. A large number of the participants worked on performance in one form or another, which was a joy for me. I was the first speaker of the day and talked about the relationship between performance and celebrity in my own work, and the various research methodologies which I’ve found particularly helpful. Discussion ranged everywhere imaginable, and it was actually a brief tangent about Club 27, Pete Doherty and The Indelicates which came into my mind today.
I’m currently rewriting the central chapter of my thesis. When I’ve cracked it, Thesis 2.0 will seem a far less Sisyphean task (forgive the hyperbole; I am mid-gin, we’re getting marriage equality, and my French tutor says my R sounds are now less rubbish). It is not a cheery chapter. It is about Mrs Patrick Campbell and her various Shakespearean exploits, and while Mrs P.C. herself is all that is lovely (just ask Shaw), much of the chapter seems to be about such ghastly topics as the sexualisation of children, the Victorian rape culture and, of course, death.
Celebrity death is a tabloid staple, since not merely the good but also the bad, and, crucially, the notorious regularly die young or just messily. I’ve mentioned Club 27 and stopped off at the shrine of Chatterton. What I’m really interested in is the idea of celebrity illness: the idea of a celebrity (above all an artist, writer or performer) whose health is sacrificed for their work, or whose creative output involves the self-destruction of their health. This seems to have been resonant for (some of) the women I write about (particularly Campbell and Bernhardt) and their publics, and I’d like to explore why. I’ve jotted down some thoughts on possible factors below, but this post really is a case of me thinking out loud and contributions (on any period, including contemporary celebrity culture) are hugely welcome!
Why have the illnesses and addictions of celebrities (particularly artists) fascinated the public, and resonated through culture?
Celebrity/artist illness can make their art seem more “authentic” when their illness indicates clear emotional and physical investment. In acting, the nervous breakdown or exhaustion of a performer seems to indicate that their performance involves “real” emotional and carries a “real” emotional cost. They can’t rely on “cold” technique.
Celebrity/artist illness seems to indicate an individual’s greater commitment to their work, since they are prepared to “suffer for their art”.
A visibly ill or suffering artist (or one presented as such by PR/the media) can play into narratives of the artist as a marginalised/persecuted figure (e.g. the “starving artist”). A comfortable or economically viable artist is perceived to have “sold out”.
Communities/cultures which believe in the Romantic figure of the “tortured genius” or “tortured artist” privilege those over the alternative.
Celebrity/artist illness identifies the ill artist with respected or admired professional forbears who suffered similar illnesses or a celebrity death – this is particularly true of Campbell, who constantly self-fashions to be like Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s memoirs are FULL of descriptions of her mental health issues, physical illness, fragility etc. Links to tragedy brings a spurious glamour in some cultural settings.
Celebrity/artist illness can attract sympathy from fans, and boost press coverage. Narratives of illness or addiction can “humanise” the celebrity subject, making them seem less intimidating or career-driven, and creating admirable narratives of overcoming obstacles.
Conservatives opposed to certain kinds of artists can draw on evidence of celebrity illness to present certain public professions, activities, or lifestyles as innately dangerous, with the illness as evidence.
Some illnesses and their manifestations are of interest for different reasons; so the tabloid press might be more interested in the risky or embarrassing public behaviour of a celebrity addicted to alcohol or drugs, while images of a very thin female celebrity (e.g. one known or suspected to have an eating disorder) proliferate in women’s magazines and “thinspiration” blogs. The aestheticising and fetishising of illness happens in all sorts of ways.
Finally, if you’re interested in being part of the Spotlight on Celebrity network, which is run by Jess Goodman (Modern Languages) and David Kennerley (History), please do get involved – there will be further study days, seminars and hopefully a conference or symposium at some point! You can email spotlightoncelebrity [at] gmail [dot] com for more details, or just comment below.
I could claim this was a New Feature for the blog, but really it’s just five scraps of unrelated minutiae that anyone with a greater grip on trendy ephemera would stick on tumblr. Just take it as evidence of what a DPhil does to your brain.*
1. Tomorrow my housemate and I are in formal hall for the advent of Ms Vanessa Redgrave. We are on High Table, which may in fact be a sort of children’s High Table due to the numbers booking in. Like a large family wedding. If Brasenose were marrying a famous actress. And Andrew and I were flower girls. In any case: I am very excited about the Vanessa Redgrave events and YOU SHOULD BE TOO. There are FOUR events over the next two days, in Oxford, they are all free and booking is HERE.
2. This is beauty and truth.
I have never seen a hipster who looked like they were capable of either having fun or reading a Sayers novel. I bet a hipster would never go and see Noises Off (I am going on Saturday!).
3. Ian Charleson = my new obsession. Please listen to him singing Guys & Dolls. It’s just audio, no pictures, so you can go and get on with what you’re doing while slowly sinking into dehydration-induced blindness (the blog that keeps on giving).
4. I have just remembered that last night, while very tired but unable to sleep, I wrote and illustrated a four-page children’s book called Josephine And The Marvellous Moustache. It’s about a little girl called Josephine and her moustache, which is marvellous, and possibly sentient, and they go to Paris together and she takes on her moustache on a date to the opera, where she and her facial hair are envied by a collection of poorly-drawn men who ALL resemble W. H. Kendal. Who says you need to be asleep to dream. My God, and to think I could have legally been a parent for the past eight years, now. I’m not fit to look after daffodils. Addendum: when I started this point with “I have just remembered that last night” I BET you didn’t think it would involve sobriety, kid’s lit, and facial hair. I BET.
5. I am off to do some doodling and sleeping. Based on last night’s adventures I can only assume I’m about to create Bearded Narnia.
*I’d appreciate it if everyone who knew me before the DPhil just KEPT QUIET on this one.
The 2009 Oriel Commemoration Ball was last night, and it was fabulous – so fabulous I’m having to hold one eye shut as I squint to check whether ‘Commemoration’ is spelt correctly. It looks wrong. But then everything looks wrong right now, including sunlight and my poor haggard face. Well, less haggard than scarlet and bleary, since my default response to such nights is puffy horror rather than interesting pallour.
It was a wonderful and impeccably-organised evening. One of our party was with-wheelchair, and inside the venue access was mostly quite good (despite a raised lawn in first quad). Outside, things were trickier; a lack of ramps made the dropped kerb outside Oriel Lodge rather hard to navigate, and I do think the Committee might have thought of that (we were the only wheelchair users, though). Oriel must be one of the least access-friendly colleges and I’m sorry to say I don’t think a wheelchair user could be there full-time as things currently stand. But the night was a great success – and unlike the St John’s Ball last year, security/committee/general personnel actually addressed Chloe and not whoever was pushing her.
The ball theme was tenuously La Belle Epoque, which translated as ‘vaguely mostly Paris’ in reality. College looked wonderful – there’s not much you can do about the ugliness of marquees, and although decorations were less in evidence than the last ball, three years ago, the three quads looked fabulous. Lighting in particular (a lot of pink and green) was very impressive. There was also a bloody terrifying mime (ancient, haggard, one of those horrible old men who can probably put his foot behind his head and doesn’t wear socks), an authentically skeevy-looking accordionist, a caricaturist, a hypnotist, a snooty tarot card reader, and, er, a midget. As Toulouse-Lautrec.
This was a bit odd, to say the least – not because of any personal objection (midget actors, like all performers, need all the gigs they can get), but because I can imagine the copy filed by any journalists in tow: “as the future leaders of great Britain slumped onto beanbags (many in a state of undress), quaffing cocktails with names like ‘Dead Man’s Mule’ and ‘Le Pigalle’ and debating whether to take Pro Plus, a midget, hired for the occasion, was brought forth to entertain the guests” Food & drink didn’t seem to run out – the chocolate fondue, impressively, was still going at dawn. A bit after midnight, I spoke to my friend (and sometime fellow MCR committee member) David, who was organising drinks (apparently more stressful than a thesis…), who was a little bit flustered over the potential dearth of champagne: guests having knocked back the reception, a stash of five emergency cases was apparently in hiding, and college had agreed to sell the Committee more drink if the worst happened. Orpheas (also MCR, also Ball Treasurer) was standing around writing cheques from the largest and most ludicrous chequebook you’ve ever seen.
My friend Will Green’s band, Feldspar (winners of the 2008 Indy Award) played at 11 in Third Quad. I think a later slot would have served them better but the set was amazing. Buy their album, or better still see them live. Will dedicated a song to me (Waterfall Lane), possibly in memory of the week we spent in Cornwall, crying, boozing and alternating Feldspar’s bitter back catalogue with Tom Waits’s Martha and Dire Straits. It’s a great song. Will’s a great singer. And on an entirely narcissistic note, it was in third quad that three strangers came up to me and complimented me on Love’s Labour’s Lost and my performance therein. Sidenote: I am really missing the LLL cast. They are awesome. Plays are just better than anything else in the world, and it was really good to see Eleanor (Nathaniel), Phil (Costard) and Rebecca (Jacquenetta) last night. Rebecca was singing two sets in First Quad – jazz standards through the small hours.
Everybody flagged a bit around four, lying in tumbled piles on the aforementioned beanbags, while a cool and misty morning hazed up out of the stones to replace the spectacularly balmy night. The fog over Oriel Square was quite amazing – grey and damp and almost wintry. Seeing the frozen skyline behind the Survivors’ Photo, future generations will probably wonder why the hell Oriel Ball 2009 was held in Winter. Four of us had the bright idea of getting into the MCR and failing to make the coffee machine work, before clambering out onto the balcony and sniffing the exquisite morning air. Fresh and cool and much more savoury than any of us. By this point the geraniums were beginning to hurt my eyes, and eventually (at 6.18, a bloody unwholesome hour) I staggered home carrying heels and clutch bag, and with enormous jumper over ball dress. Several others (including many boys stripped of all but fragments of evening dress, and with wet hair – surely not swimming?) were doing the same thing, cringing our way over Magdalen Bridge and acknowledging that yes, we are scum with our mussed hair and dishevelled frocks, and the Cowley Road denizens looking at us with amusement (or hatred) from bus and work and other wholesome pursuits are entirely right to do so.
It was a wonderful evening. I hate that I have to leave this city soon. Any place has a trick of looking beautiful when you have to leave it, but this morning Oxford looked particularly pale and smooth, grey and clear like a stone. So much better than East Oxford ever looks at other times, even though I love the Cowley Road with its noise and madness and constant promise of life-life-life.
Although this purple prose is inspired entirely by a lachrymose, late-afternoon hangover, I wish there were more nights like this still to come, rather than four years left behind. College looked like a big untidy beach this morning, the stones gold and the debris staggering. I am lucky to have been here, and when even I can get caught up in the drowsy chanting of Oriel, Oriel after ten hours’ partying it’s an indication of just how much I’ll hate to say goodbye.
Also, the Provost was there, disco-dancing with his wife. In restrained white tie. Rarely have I seen anything so seemly or so incredibly endearing.
The chapter is in. And now, just for a few days, my brain can rot. Erode. Turn to mulch. By few I mean two and by rot I mean, well, I don’t do drugs and you don’t get sloshed at home, so, TO THE INTERNET.
There’s something really vulnerable about a woman dressed to suggest lower-body nudity. Perhaps it bothers me because it’s the look Tracy Letts chose for a woman’s first appearance in his 1994 play Killer Joe. Sheila appears ‘naked from the waist down’ on the first page (no equivalent nudity for the boys) and is demeaned and assaulted for the rest of the incredibly nasty play. In the Selby Bostrom/Gentle shoot, Gentle spends most of the shoot looking cerebral/exasperated/lovingly fond and v. practical, while Bostrom shows off her prettily-tattooed inner thigh, and/or plays witha kitten.
Not that the Gentle/Bostrom shoot was the worst offender; I’m willing to blame that on the dreadful Peaches Geldof shoot, for the instantly-engendered rage. I am willing to bet that bloody Bunny (I-christen-thee-Henry-slash-Archie-slash-Quentin if ever there was one, and yes some of my best friends do have those silly names) isn’t a hustler, that Lily’s “Teen Vogue Intern” isn’t a profession recognised by the census-takers, and that Geldof, Flower and Rabbit all get somebody else in to cook and clean (they’re not students. They’re not even real people. Where’s the pasta in their kitchen? The stirfry veg?). But, leaving aside my bile and spleen, leaving it in a little paper packet along with my heart, lungs and brain, some Selby shoots are still amazing – try Daniela Kimiliotis or Annakim Violette, even if the latter’s survey answers indicate that sometimes the beautiful shouldn’t be allowed to talk.
Unfortunately, Gentle tends to shoot women the wayboth he and Selby shoot Bostrom – faux-naive, heavy-jawed stuff (why are we still idolising a style of beauty that’s the second-rate version of a 1920s debutante?), kittens much in evidence, which just ends with the subjects looking underage and a bit, er, thick (pointing out examples here seems, well, cruel. No that comma wasn’t a hyperlink. No really).
I’m aware that I’ve complained about this guy on and off for paragraphs, but the fact that I still can’t get enough of Gentle’s work on men means I HAVE NO PRINCIPLES you should check him out. 1) he looks a lot like Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine. 2) He doesn’t wear socks. 3) Maybe you’ll just really like spoilt, underage-looking girls. Though that’s probably illegal and you should keep it to yourself. Lots of the girls seem to come from nice bits of uptown New York, though, so you should also go if you like rich girls. Which isn’t illegal, as yet.
2. Ladies Against Feminism. Dude, I know. I know. These people are crazy. Crazier than the Merton Time Ceremony (unique to this list for being splendid rather than terrible), crazier than the one Oxford church running an exgay programme, crazier than my extended family and crazier than Tony Higgins’s face (did anyone see the last episode of Lewis? He was playing a formerly-promiscuous closeted-queer rockstar whose ‘hydraulics were shot’ and who’d taken every drug known to formerly-promiscuous queer. His face was presumably why they’d hired him).
But I keep going back. I love it. I love that just when you think we’ve reached our limit of outrages perpetrated in the name of a man who loved, without reservation, prostitutes, centre-right civil servants, gay centurions and the diseased, the loonytunes West just gives us that little bit more. The ladies of LAF doesn’t even make me angry. They probably should, since some of them are actually anti-female-suffrage, but honestly, I just laugh. They don’t have the organisational skills of the Westboro Baptists, and since the core of the movement seems to be that women should sit at home waiting for their wombs to prolapse, I doubt that one of these poor women will be infringing my civil liberties any time soon.
Some of what they say is good. You know, the bits about the love of God healing us, stay-at-home motherhood being an incredibly valid and valuable choice (I’d like to be a stay-at-home mum, if I can, although my current parenting plan involves, so says the co-conspirator, ‘feeding it on make-believe and Ritalin’) and the fact that God made us in his image and has a plan for us that shows he recognises our worth and skills.
On the other hand, you can get that from any sane church or sane Christian (and recognition of the role played by SAHMs surely-to-God from any sane woman), without the encircling doctrine of madness, terror and hate. This is the so-bad-it’s-good face of Christian blogging, and as a special bonus, there are more Daddy Issues than you can shake a stick at. Go marvel.
3. Fantasy shopping. All the crap, all the time. Despite being at least 50% FRUGAL in my real existence (as an antidote to being 50% TERRIBLE WITH MONEY, a genetic trait from a father whose motto is ‘well, you’re a long time dead/you have 40 years to go to work/let’s open another bottle and do another degree, floss’), my imagination spends millions of imaginary pounds every time I click. For the record, were I to win the Lottery I do not play (the gambling equivalent of a Virgin Birth), I would fill my hand with the Tiffany Celebration Rings (I’m not proud), then buy these, this, this and these. And a pony. Note: my female friends are equally as shallow. I did a quick straw poll which threw up mention of Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Brora and Toast. And by my female friends I mean Chloe. In my defence, I would also probably take Arabic lessons and learn to properly paint. Maybe go on retreat. Build a theatre at my secondary school. Go back to Rome. But I’d also buy a mews flat in Soho and start having my nails done. You see.
4. Pop/indie/acoustic/I’ve never understood genre SONGS ABOUT THINGS WHICH ARE NOT TRADITIONALLY SUITABLE FOR SONGS. I cannot tell you how much I love these. Being simultaneously synaesthetic and melodically dead inside means I prefer lyrics to melody (unless it’s baroque or early music which I enjoy because it’s very very structured, just like I enjoy owning cleaning products and keeping things in boxes. In boxes. Boxes), portraits to landscapes, and the weeping scabs of human experience to the vicissitudes of love/above cry/bye baby/maybe. This is not to say that my tastes are either highbrow or gloomy. Hence my first song choice is Cool by Gwen Stefani. WRITE MORE SONGS ABOUT FIRST HUSBANDS, people. Especially cheerful poppy electric ballads that make me slightly want to kill myself. And also convince you that Gwen Stefani’s first husband cannot have got over her, because who possibly could.
I must admit that from here on in, things do get quite depressing. Or at least ambiguously happy. Cue the laceration that is Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin (daddy issues! in the Midwest! Absentee fathers, rubbishness and plausible cycles of appalling horror! It’s so good) and the unbelievably brilliant Daddy’s Gone by Glasvegas. Jenny introduced me to this lot, who also wrote the only extant Ballad of A Social Worker, Geraldine. I also like my mother’s all-time favourite song, many-people-are-dead-but-everything’s-splendid, The Beatles’s In My Life. If I was going to pick an Indelicates song, it would probably be New Art For The People, but only because when I heard the first two verses I vaguely thought it was about Brady and Hindley (and liked it all the better). Actually, no, idiot me, it’d be Unity Mitford, which is actually much better than Our Daughters Will Never Be Free because jesusgod, they wrote a song about Unity Mitford, but anyone can point out feminism’s going backwards. Tho admittedly not so well.
From Rubber Soul, I also love Little Girl (ambiguously paedophilic lovers vow revenge and murder!) and Girl, mostly for the enormous sniffs Lennon and Macartney do, halfway through recording. A lot of popular standards do have wonderfully odd plots – Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man (seduction by cleric’s offspring), Turner’s River Deep Mountain High (sexual relationship analogous to childhood love for stuffed toy) and Thriller (I mean, my God).
My favourite line in all music is from Glenn Miller (pick yer own) – there were angels dining at the Ritz (note: I have never eaten at the Ritz. Please add to item three), juxtaposing the surreal with the sublime. I like the incongruous, and so many lyrics are bizarre that I can include plenty of really good music in this post and perhaps remove the guilt. But liking these songs for their weird subject matter is a bit unusual, and although I would very much appreciate song recs about weight loss, paternity tests, ex-wives and tube delays (Yeti’s Northern Line obsessed me last summer – I love that the second last.fm tag is ‘depressing’), I am quite prepared to be judged. Quality is almost immaterial, as long as the subject matter is odd.
5. Lewis. I don’t watch a lot of television. This is due to three things; I don’t have a TV in Oxford, ITV Player won’t work on my Mac and, as a source of media and procrastination, the internet has the ineffable advantage of letting you bite back. I will, however, break any number of laws and kill any number of braincells in search of Lewis.
Guys, I love it. I never got sci-fi. I couldn’t care less about romance. I do like soaps, having been raised on EastEnders and Coronation Street and a daily dose of the Archers (hurrah for Lilian, boo hiss Ruth god RUTH), but Lewis… it has everything I could ever want. Detectives: my huge vice. I went from Blyton to Christie and never looked back. The bits of me that didn’t apply to Oxford for Brideshead did so re: Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Religion. Beautiful Laura Hobson and beautiful DSI Innocent. Ridiculous continuity, impossible plotlines, snarky banter, gay angst, beautiful Laurence Fox and Oxford.
People never cease to save other people from drowning, fires, or (last week) being drowned and cut up with manure-chopping knives. People are constantly leaving the priesthood, perving on their relatives, unzipping corpses and pretending Brasenose is Univ – and at the centre of it all is a crumpled Geordie man and his wife’s amazing cardboard tombstone. Every episode has at least forty-seven establishing shots of the Rad Cam, forty-eight reaction shots of Hathaway and forty-nine instances of somebody stepping out of the Rad Cam and suddenly being opposite St Giles. I love it. I love it so much. The writing is simultaneously ridiculous and makes you glad to be alive.
Also, Lewis loves his sergeant slightly more than air. As he should. Hathaway is a beanlike ex-Tab, ex-rowing Blue, ex-priest who left the seminary after recanting his homophobic Catholic views and who celebrates every setback by having angst in his face (such angst, you guys, such angst) and playing the guitar (actually playing the guitar. In a floppy shirt. He makes me clutch my hair). He weighs eight stone and looks like a horse. He’s part of a world music band, has no friends, is of ambiguous sexuality and is, for some reason, the only remaining TV character allowed to SMOKE CONSTANTLY on primetime TV. Lewis is continually leaving him against railings so he can light up and look hot.
Despite being unbelievably posh and basically despising the working class, the other day Hathaway was also allowed to go all Gene Hunt and slam Our Villain up against Brasenose with the words ‘You’re dirty and I’ll Have You’. And he sulks at the slightest provocation. In Series 2 Lewis carried him out of a burning building (and yes I did link that picture twice. I’m fond of it).
Go and watch it. You’ll either hate it and despise me (I shan’t care – there’s a DVD!), or be seized with uncontrollable love and long to join in some sort of fanbased pilgrimage walking-tour. Oh, Lewis. If ITV don’t recomission him them, I shall probably die. If there’s a word on the internet related to this series, I have probably read it already. Look at the beauty. Look.
[Author’s Note: one day I will blog a list of credible things that I also enjoy. But probably not while academic work requires me to use my brain. Expect the usual fare of smalltown blues, theatre gossip, David Tennant and inanity until such time. If you’re lucky, I’ll start talking about the figures from my thesis like they’re personal friends. Woot!.]