San francisco

Dedicated to debauchery: the life of Thom Gunn

In 1876, writing to his friend Gertrude Tennant, Gustave Flaubert set down a principle that artists and writers should live by: Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos œuvres. (Be regular in your life and ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.) The life of the English poet Thom Gunn had its disciplined aspect (he managed to hold down a job at least), but, overall, it was so dedicated to debauchery and excess that it’sa wonder it lasted as long as it did. The story, told in detail by Michael Nott, makes even

The data-spew about Bob Dylan never ends

When it comes to Bob Dylan, Clinton Heylin is The Man Who Knows Too Much. Since publishing his first biography, 1991’s Behind the Shades, he has become the world’s most committed Dylanologist, doggedly untwining the facts from the artist’s self-serving fictions. When he describes Dylan’s wildly unreliable 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One as ‘all a put-on… all a lie’, he has the receipts. As he never tires of pointing out, scholars and diehards are in his debt, but amassing data from sessions, setlists and now 130 boxes of Dylan’s formerly private papers is not the same as telling a good story. For someone innocently hoping to understand one of the

The rise and fall of bohemia

In the Kunsthalle Praha, a smart new gallery in Prague, a Scottish professor from UCLA called Russell Ferguson is trying to explain to me the meaning of bohemia. Like a lot of fashionable buzzwords, it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is a bohemian an artistic rebel? Or merely a pretentious layabout? Ferguson is an expert on the subject, and even he can’t quite sum it up. However, unlike most academics (and most journalists, for that matter) Professor Ferguson isn’t content to just sit around and chat. As well as writing a book about bohemia, he’s mounted an exhibition about bohemians here at the Kunsthalle – and after he’s shown me

The amazing grace of Bruce Lee’s fight scenes

Early on in Enter the Dragon our hero, the acrobatic Kung Fu fighter Bruce Lee, tells a young pupil to kick him. Needless to say, the kid’s kick comes a cropper. ‘What was that?’, Lee sneers, clipping the lad’s ear. ‘An exhibition? We need emotional content, not anger.’ Even at 12, when I first read about this scene (in the poster magazine Kung Fu Monthly, whose first 26 issues are handsomely reproduced in Volume I of Carl Fox’s Archive Series), I thought it sounded like a load of chop suey hooey. An exhibition is precisely what I’d have wanted, if by some miracle I could have wise-guyed my way into

San Francisco is decaying

During the pandemic, a growing number of people in floridly psychotic states screamed obscenities at invisible enemies, or at my colleagues and me on the streets of San Francisco. One morning, a young man came up to me as I was unlocking our front door and coughed in my unmasked face. Another threatened to assault a colleague. In both cases our mistake appears to have been looking at the men. Many of the problems stemmed from Covid-19. California’s prisons, jails and homeless shelters were under orders to reduce their occupancy. But none of these problems started with the pandemic. Between 2008 and 2019, about 18,000 companies, including Toyota, Charles Schwab

Sun, sex and acid: Thom Gunn in California

San Francisco is a fantastic place… it’s terribly sunny… I am having a splendid hedonistic time here… I find myself continually going to marvellous orgies where I meet unbelievably sexy people… I dropped acid for Christmas Day… had sex for SIX HOURS… Then to New York, which I’ve never enjoyed so much… Some of the people I met introduced me to cocaine (one of the people was a singer for a pop group called Looking Glass), and that is a fine drug… Life is such fun here… I had an extraordinary three-way with two guys I met in a bar… I am really pretty happy… I’ve been doing a lot

A love letter to San Francisco’s mean streets

Recollections of My Non-Existence is the Rebecca Solnit book I have been waiting for. I was born four years after the American writer, and on the same continent, and much of what she describes in Recollections feels very familiar: the flamboyant gay scene of the 1980s, swiftly followed by the devastation of the Aids epidemic, the navigation through second-wave feminism, the men who constantly told us ‘what to do and be’ while they scrutinised our bodies. When Solnit was young, ‘nearly everyone who held power and made news was male’. I was fist-pumping by the time I got to: ‘We were trained to please men, and that made it hard