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Joe Orton’s Wallpaper: The Visa Affair by Jake Arnott

Joe Orton has been pricking up my ears lately.

On a recent visit to London, thanks to the randomised wonder of ‘dating apps’ – or online cottaging – I found myself, as you do, visiting someone I didn’t know terribly well but wanted to get to know much better. He happened to live very close to Noel Road, Islington. This is the road where, at No.25, the 1960s queer playwright and keen old skool pre-internet cottager Joe Orton famously lived – and died, fifty years ago next year – in a bedsit with his rather less successful, less attractive, less popular, but possibly more talented, older partner and co-conspirator, the would-be novelist and dodgy toupee enthusiast Kenneth Halliwell.

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Having walked the length of it on the way to my ‘meet’, and past No.25 with its plaque, I can report that Noel Road is no definitely longer the slightly slummy street of rooming houses it was in Orton’s time. Full of new Porsche’s and Jaguars, the street’s rooming houses seem to have mostly been turned back into very wealthy, if rather lonely family homes. With no doubt the very latest in Wallpaper magazine interior design and decor.

But I expect none of them have anything like the seriously classy wallpaper that Joe and Kenneth had in their bedsit flat at 25 Noel Road. Apparently angered by the ‘rubbish novels and books’ – and perhaps by the poor quality of the general culture they found themselves sentenced to in late 50s early 60s Britain – they used plates culled from books purloined from Islington Central Library to cover the dingy walls of their 16 x 12 room.

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Public-spirited vandals, they selflessly improved the dust-jackets of some of the dusty books with their own collages – replacing them on the library shelves, Orton sometimes observing at a distance people’s reaction to their irreverent sabotage: ‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’

Queen's Favourite

John Betjeman as Tattooed Man

The art deviant odd couple eventually had their collars felt by Lilly Law and were sentenced in 1962 to six months imprisonment – a harsh tariff for first offenders which Orton put down to the fact that the judge had realised ‘we were queers’. The case made the national press, with Orton’s working class family in Leicester only hearing about it after reading a report in the Daily Mirror: ‘Our Joe’s been nicked!’ exclaimed Mr Orton to Mrs Orton. The custodial sentence, served in separate prisons, seems to have broken Halliwell, who tried to commit suicide, but was the making of Orton who emerged determined to shock more than just a few fortunate readers at Islington Central Library.

In a sense, their criminal collage was the only joint work which was a ‘success’, or at least reached a wider audience. It was also Orton’s first, minor taste of notoriety, before his first play ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ became a huge hit and scandal three years later in 1964, with its dramatic ‘collage’ of British hypocrisies. It was also Halliwell’s last. Not counting his posthumous fame for murdering Orton by attacking his celebrity head with a hammer in 1967 in a drug-fuelled, possibly jealous and/or paranoid state – splattering his brains all over the collage-covered walls.

Last Sunday BBC Radio 3 also pricked up my ears, airing ‘The Visa Affair’ (which you can listen to for the next month) – a fine adaptation by the novelist Jake Arnott of a previously ‘lost’ and incomplete work of Orton’s about his Byzantine attempts in 1965 to obtain a visa to visit the US to oversee the Broadway translation/production of ‘Mr Sloane’.

The prison sentence he’d served for the collages, together with the nature of the crime itself – denoting, in disapproving American official eyes, ‘moral turpitude’ – meant he had to go through a series of darkly comic interviews with US bureaucrats and doctors at the US Embassy in London, which as Arnott points out in his introduction to his adaptation, closely resembles the kind of officious absurdities his own plays lampooned.

This is much more than just an adaptation, however. Partly because, as Arnott explains in his introduction to the play, ‘The Visa Affair’ was incomplete, and partly because it could not, pre decriminalisation of male homosexuality (which happened in the UK in July 1967 – the month before Orton’s death) ever be really completed. Orton could not be ‘completely’ honest with either the US Embassy or the British public about the real nature of the ‘conspiracy’ between him and Halliwell and the motivation for their cultural sabotage.

Hence Arnott adds scenes set in the infamous tiny bedsit that deftly and touchingly explore Orton and Halliwell’s conspiratorial (“‘breath together’ – that’s what ‘conspire’ means”) relationship, how Halliwell cultivated and tutored Orton’s talent, and their shared darkly comic – ‘camp’, if you will – sense of humour. Anatomising their ‘crime of passion’.

Although I very much enjoyed the film version of Alan Bennett’s play ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ when it was released in 1987, I think Arnott captures something much more convincingly intimate. As well as a boyish vulnerability in Orton that Oldman’s swaggering, slightly renty portrayal obscures with bravura. Sexy bravura to be sure, but perhaps bravura all the same.

Arnott’s ‘The Visa Affair’ achieves something remarkable: it lets you glimpse what Joe might have seen in his bald, impossible, unpopular and ultimately murderous ‘flatmate’.

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Heston, Charlton Ben-Hur 07

Get Hur! How Gay Subtexts Became Ancient History

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Out.com 18 August, 2016)

We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.

Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.

But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.

As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’

Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.

Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.

According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’

A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’

Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!

Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’

Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.

Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’

Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).

But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.

Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.

It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.

Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.

Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.

Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.

Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.

Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.

The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.

Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.

Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.

Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.

Smart motorway

Smartening Up – Or Dumbing Down?

Mark Simpson on how hard shoulders are being given… the hard shoulder

Hard shoulders don’t sound very inviting – and often look very unloved and untidy. But you may miss them when they’ve gone.

The Transport Secretary just announced that 32 miles of hard shoulder will be axed from the M4 between Hayes and Theale as part of an ‘upgrade’ that converts the hard-shoulder to a fourth lane.

Earlier this year, another twenty miles of hard shoulder disappeared from our motorway network as the latest stretch of ‘smart motorway’ opened on a section of the M1, between junctions 31 near Worksop and 28 near Mansfield.

By way of exchange, the more than 95,000 vehicles a day using it will benefit from an extra, fourth lane – as well 100% CCTV monitoring and information about traffic conditions displayed via overhead electronic variable messaging signs (VMS) – and variable speed limits designed to avoid traffic queues and keep traffic flowing. Journey times should be shorter and more reliable. At least for a few years.

For those experiencing a breakdown, running out of fuel – or a health emergency – there are now ‘refuge’ areas instead of the trusty hard shoulder. However, you need to be careful where your big end goes, or your dodgy lunch, since the refuges are a rather lengthy 2.5KM apart.

You will also have to hope there is no one else already occupying the refuge area (including foreign lorry drivers who reportedly sometimes use them to kip in), since there isn’t a lot of room. Additionally, because they don’t have a slip road, once your car is repaired or your lunch lost, you will have to wait for someone from the Highways Agency to come and stop the traffic to let you out.

This is the future of motorway driving in the UK. In addition to several currently under construction, there are ten more smart upgrades planned across England as part of a £1.5B investment. By 2021 the DoT promises there will be ‘292 extra lane miles added to motorways’. Given that they will be full time all-lane running, this also means that our motorways will permanently lose more than 300 miles of hard shoulder in the next decade or so.

It’s now ten years since the first smart motorway opened in the UK, between junctions 4 and 3A on the M42 in the West Midlands. Back then however they were called ‘managed motorways’.

Perhaps having taken some marketing advice, since 2014 the DoT now calls managed motorways ‘smart motorways’. A smart motorway – which by definition is always better than a ‘dumb’ one – is where active traffic management (ATM) techniques are deployed: these include variable speed limits and hard-shoulder running (either permanently or only at busy times). There are three types: ‘controlled motorway’, ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ and ‘all-lane running’.

A controlled motorway has variable speed limits without hard-shoulder running, such as on the M25 from J27 to J30.

‘Dynamic hard shoulder running’ motorway has variable speed-limits with part-time hard-shouldering in busy periods. These have a solid white line differentiating the hard shoulder from the main carriageway, and overhead gantries displaying a red ‘X’ over the lane when it is closed to traffic. DHSR has been extended to sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6 and M62.

‘All-lane running’, variable speed limits with the hard-shoulder converted to a permanent running lane, can be found on sections of the M6, M62 and M25. This is the new standard for all new smart motorway schemes – ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ seems to have been a softening up exercise, getting the public ready for eliminating hard shoulders altogether on smart motorways.

So why have hard shoulders become suddenly so unnecessary – and so cannibalised by our motorway network?

Because of course smart motorways are much cheaper than road-widening (smart motorways are ‘widened’ within the existing boundaries of the motorway), much less politically and environmentally costly than new motorways, and they are supposed to take much less time to construct. Though people enduring 50mph average speed cameras on the M1 for the past few years while it was ‘smartened’ might disagree.

In 2007 it was estimated that installing ATM on UK motorways would take c.2 years at a cost of £5-15 million per mile – compared with 10 years and £79 million for widening.

Not everyone is convinced that smart motorways are so smart, however. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee recently published some feedback criticisms, such as the distance between refuge areas, and the frequency of gantries (they can be every 500m).

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have also expressed concern that emergency services would take longer to reach an incident – but the Highways Agency rejected this, citing the 5000 miles of dual carriageway that doesn’t have a hard shoulder.

For its part the AA has expressed concerns about breakdowns in lane one, saying it believes that the risk to a vehicle stopped there at night is too great to accept. Then again, perhaps this may be something to do with the fact the AA is not allowed to attend broken down vehicles in a running lane.

Advocates of smart motorways also point to studies which suggest that they’re safer than un-managed motorways with hard shoulders. Though if you’ve ever seen a drowsy articulated lorry ahead of you wander half way across the hard shoulder in a cloud of dust before suddenly turning back onto the main carriageway, it’s difficult not to wonder if the smaller ‘margin’ for error on smart motorways means that it’s just a question of time and mileage before there is a seriously nasty pile-up.

But whatever you or I or even the AA may think of them, smart motorways are here to stay and you’ll be seeing a lot more of them – and fewer hard shoulders. Of course, traffic volumes are only likely to continue to rise, eventually choking the smart motorways – and there won’t be a hard shoulder left to cannibalise.

But at that point a hidden appeal of smart motorways to politicians may reveal itself – with their gantries, CCTV and digital cameras they already have a lot of the infrastructure needed to introduce road charging.

And although unpopular now, when we run out of hard shoulders, charging may seem like the ‘smart’ – or only – option.

How to drive on a smart motorway

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Whose Road Is it Anyway?

Mark Simpson on the tarmac war between cyclists and drivers

Like many drivers, I hate cyclists. They’re in your way. They’re too slow. They’re too erratic. They’re too self-righteous. They get away with murder.

But when I’m on my pushbike, I hate drivers. They’re up your arse. They’re too fast. They’re too aggressive. They’re too impatient. They’re murderers.

So you could say I have a balanced view.

As a cyclist I envy the way that drivers are dry and warm and protected by a metal box, picking their noses. I hate the way they can overtake me without having to break an honest sweat – polluting the environment instead.

As a driver, I envy the freedom and fresh-air healthiness of cyclists, the way they filter up to the front of the traffic queue, and don’t have to pay anything, or take any tests to ride their pushbike in their Day-Glo underwear on Her Majesty’s highway.

And of course, in today’s urban/suburban traffic it’s quite likely that you’ll find yourself at a red light facing the lycra buttocks you took so much trouble to overtake and make taste your exhaust two minutes ago.

When you consider how much running a car costs – and at such moments you really do – this can be a bit humiliating.

Little surprise then that a recent survey of UK drivers found that three quarters of them think that cyclists should have to get a licence before they are allowed on the road alongside cars.

While nearly half (42%) thought that cyclists should only be allowed to use the pavement. This however is currently a fineable offence – though one that seems hardly enforced. When I’m a pedestrian, I hate cars and cyclists.

The survey also found that half of drivers agreed with the statement: ‘Cyclists should all have their saddles confiscated’. Okay, I made that one up.

To be fair to drivers, there are a lot more cyclists around these days, on roads that are a lot more choked – and ‘calmed’, that is, narrowed – than before. It’s increasingly difficult to safely overtake cyclists in urban areas. There are more cycle lanes, but often they’re not used because of poor layout or maintenance.

Sometimes drivers must feel as if cyclists are being used by traffic management planners as 21st Century versions of the guys with red flags that had to walk in front of the first motorcars.

Also, it needs to be admitted that a significant proportion of bi-pedallists don’t seem to think the Highway Code applies to them. And because a license isn’t required to ride a bike, and because a pushbike doesn’t have a registration plate, that’s kind of  true.

Yes, cyclists may be fined £30 for jumping a red light – but only if there’s an actual bobby stood on the other side of the lights with time on their hands. Frankly, you’ve more chance of meeting a unicorn than a uniform. Or seeing a cyclist giving hand signals.

Some years ago, in a fit of madness I bought a moped. But I quickly got rid of it when I discovered that it was much slower around town than using my pushbike. Because it was wider and heavier than my bike I couldn’t get to the front of the queue so easily. And because it had a registration I couldn’t always take the ‘shortest route’….

Drivers today have also noticed that cyclists today have become a lot more assertive. 52% of drivers have had an ‘altercation’ with cyclists – and 35% said they had been on the receiving end of ‘road rage’ abuse from the pedal-power people.

Who nowadays often have helmet-cams: ‘YOU’RE ON CAMERA, MATE!!’.

We’ve all seen those shaming YouTube clips of drivers behaving badly, overtaking much too close – the Highway Code stipulates ‘a car’s width’ – and then getting shirty or outright violent because the cyclist shouted at them. Usually in Essex: ‘WHY WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD THEN, YOU F***CKIN C***HNT?!’

A surprising number of drivers seem to be unaware that cyclists are advised to cycle away from the gutter and, according to Transport for London: ‘If the road is too narrow for vehicles to pass you safely, it may be better to ride in the middle of the lane to prevent dangerous overtaking’.

Yes, sometimes there does appear to be a kind of mobile class war going on: the white collar cyclist with almost a passive-aggressive Judge Dredd/Judy complex, chasing after loutish van drivers and goading them into saying or doing something stupid or just criminal on camera.

But generally these clips serve a useful purpose: they allow drivers to see the road from the cyclists’ wobbly, exposed POV. In 2014, 113 cyclists died on our roads. According to a survey conducted last year, cyclists experience a ‘very scary’ incident on average once a week.

And the pedal warrior footage also remind drivers that although they may be riding round in powerful soundproofed, climate-controlled armour with seat-belts and airbags – while the cyclist is just a crumple zone wearing a plastic hat – that there are still potential consequences for their behaviour.

That said, road safety is ultimately the responsibility of all road users. Cyclists and drivers, the vertebrates and invertebrates of the highway, have more in common than just the road they share.

They always think they’re in the right.

AA advice to drivers and cyclists on sharing the road safely

AA Highway Code for Cyclists

Bloody drivers!

Bloody cyclists!

 

 

Panoramic buns by M Burns

Sporno Italico

Mark Simpson visits Rome’s Foro Italico, home of Mussolini’s Olympic ‘gay gang-bang in Carrara marble’

Off the well-worn tourist track, on the North bank of the Tiber in the Eternal City, hidden away in the Foro Italico sports complex, is a vast, open-air shrine to the idealised male form that most visitors to Rome are unaware exists.

Which is rather odd, seeing as it is essentially a huge – if tastefully done – gay gang-bang in Carrara marble.

The Stadio dei Marmi (‘Stadium of the Marbles’) is an open-air sports stadium completed in 1928 as a training centre for the adjoining Academy Physical Education, as part of a plan for attracting the Olympics to Rome in 1944 – a project blown slightly off-course by the Second World War.

But the Stadio dei Marmi is not a sports stadium like you have ever seen before, outside of sport-themed gay porn.

Naked Parade by M Burns

Fifty-nine statues of classically-styled athletes surround and dominate the stadium with their various states of perfect nakedness – some with fig-leaves, some in jock-straps, many completely starkers except for the occasional boxing glove or cricket bat.

Baton by M Burns

The Foro Italico sports complex which contains Stadio dei Marmi was built during Italy’s fascist period and originally called the ‘Foro Mussolini’ – the Italian dictator took a close personal interest in the design. It was, you might say, a vanity project. The statues of the Stadio dei Marmi were of course meant to glorify Il Duce and Italian fascism and associate him and it with the strength, virility and triumphs of imperial Rome.

The swole glory that was Rome by M Burns

However, the sculptors involved seem to have got carried away. To the modern eye this celebration of firm male flesh looks like a spornographic scandal. It really has to be seen – to be experienced – to be believed. Standing in the middle of the stadium surrounded by all that virile marble it’s difficult not to feel you’re the centre of a neo-classical bukkake – the still-fresh white Carrara marble ejaculating against the blue Roman sky.

Looking heavenwards

But it’s when you go around the rear of these god-like chaps that the real fun begins. The bubble buttocks on display are simply divine in their detail. All that carefully symbolised furious activity suddenly becomes irresistible passivity. Not at all what Il Duce had in mind.

Rears Batman style by M Burns

One of the sculptors has even autographed one of the statues ‘A. Buttini’. A joke that doesn’t really work in Italian – but I like to think he knew I was coming.

A Buttini by M Burns

If you squint your eyes against the Mediterranean sun it’s easy to imagine a young Dolce and Gabbana here with a packed lunch, furiously sketching away – getting inspiration for their famous underwear advertising campaigns in the Noughties. The ones starring the Italian rugby, soccer and swimming teams oiled up in the showers. Which were then followed in the Tweens by fellow-Italian Armani’s saucy underpants campaigns starring sporting heroes Beckham, Nadal and Ronaldo with their legs apart on the side of buses.

Come and have a go if you're hard enough

Perhaps it’s just a trick of the Mediterranean light. Perhaps it’s just an effect of hindsight. But whether or not the 20th Century martial-marble propaganda of Stadio dei Marmi anticipated 21st century hyper-sexualised depictions of male athletes, it’s well worth a visit.

And a really good gawp.

(Originally appeared on Out Traveller, June 2016)

Photos Copyright M. Burns.

Sweaty, hunky fun at the BodyPower Games. (Photo M Burns)

Inside Spornosexual Pride

Mark Simpson goes to BodyPower, the UK’s biggest fitness expo, & tries not to stare too hard. Even though staring is very, very welcome.

“Would you like me to take my top off?” is the usual response when you ask a chap if he minds having his photo taken. Followed by much flexing.

Those that are actually wearing a top. Many are just wearing a flawless tan. Or vests – ‘tanks’, as they’re now called – of varying degrees of skimpiness and stretchiness. It’s cool out, but shorts and compression leggings abound – as well as tapered gym pants that are so ‘fitted’ they might as well be compression leggings. To paraphrase a well-worn saying: when in the National Exhibition Centre, make a national exhibition of yourself.

Read the (fully-illustrated) feature at The Daily Telegraph