The finest little bar on the Seven Seas is closing. After forty years of entertaining the sailors of the Royal Navy, Charles’ Hole in t’Wall in Gibraltar is shuttering its doors, bringing an end to a very special chapter in British maritime and marytime history.
This report from GBC gives some idea how much of an institution the bar and most particularly owner and star-attraction Charles have been for matelots on their ‘run ashore’ in Gib – and how much they love their ‘lovely Charlie’.
Here’s how I met Charles, back in the late Nineties. It was initially a disappointment to find the Fleet out and his bar deserted, but it turned out to be a great stroke of luck for me – because it meant that I had the privilege of having lovely Charles all to myself.
Mark Simpson has a sniff around a classic men’s deodorant ad that reveals how far we’ve come – and also how some things never change
Back in the 1960s the mass-market ‘grooming’ of men by advertisers wanting to sell them vanity products was only just beginning its warm-up.
This rare and pristine copy of a 1968 UK cinema ad for men’s deodorant with the reassuringly martial name ‘Target’ (a brand that seems to have gone missing in the intervening half century) recently posted on the BFI website is a little gem of a gender time-capsule.
Starring working class hero and footballing legend Geoff Hurst, the ad points up how much has changed – post Beckham and Ronaldo. But also how some things haven’t very much. It contains some of the now tiresome tropes that can still be found in (bad) advertising aimed at men today, however the passage of time has rendered them so absurd here as to be rather endearing.
A couple of years earlier Hurst had scored a hat-trick for England in the 1966 World Cup Final – defeating West Germany. It was VE Day all over again, but without the rationing. Hurst became a national (war)hero overnight, passionately admired by millions of men.
Hence Hurst was the perfect patriotic package for pitching a hitherto sissy product like deodorant as heroic and masculine. (1960s heavyweight boxing champion and Cockney folk hero Henry Cooper would later be deployed in a similar fashion for Brut aftershave in the blokey bruiser’s famous “splash it on all ovah!” 1970s TV ads.)
Note how the “GOOD and STRONG” – the opposite of sissy – deodorant bottle is the same no-nonsense colours as the bandages in the locker-room first aid cabinet its kept in. Today, players’ changing rooms have had to be rebuilt to make their lockers big enough to accommodate their cosmetic-filled manbags.
Target is not sold as a cosmetic, heaven forfend, but as ‘protection’ – it’s the off-pitch version of the martial shin-pads Geoff wears before he heads onto the pitch and pretending, endearingly badly, to be hard-tackled on what seems to be a pitch made mostly of honest, manly mud.
In fact, the ‘protection’ angle is emphasised so much you wonder whether Target made prophylactics as well.
Note also the modesty-saving towel velcroed to Hurst’s chest – today the camera would be zooming in on his oiled, shaved, pumped pecs, and following him into the shower. And note the visit to the local boring boozer instead of a poncey bar selling them there dodgy foreign lagers.
And it would be impossible to miss the hysterical insistence by the fruity voiceover on the MANLINESS of this deodorant and the “MAN-SIZED protection” it offers: “With a fresh clean smell that could ONLY BE MASCULINE! … For men and MEN ONLY!”
Because of course most men in the UK in the 1960s didn’t use deodorant and were slightly suspicious of men who did.
Hurst is a man’s man from a man’s world of manly, smelly locker rooms, pitches, barracks, terraces and factories. But in case we still thought that there might be any ambiguity about his use of deodorant, despite the voiceover’s insistence, as the BFI website blurb points out, the ad is careful to show us that Hurst’s MANLY deodorant is definitely not for the benefit of MEN. Target is to be used ONLY after the match and locker-room towel-flicking is over – because it has a heterosexual aim.
Scrubbed-up, suited and booted and sprayed with the fresh clean MANLY smell of Target, Geoff has three ‘dolly-birds’ throwing themselves at him down the boozer (and maybe a fourth at the bar getting another round in). I hope he kept the shin-pads on.
Then again, for a previous generation of men such as some of the older ones we glimpse cheering on the MEN ONLY terraces in their cloth caps – who definitely aren’t the target market – young Geoff’s hanging out with all these women, with his hair all nice and his armpits ‘protected’ would likely have been seen as the height of effeminacy rather than a reassuring proof of heterosexuality.
He’ll be drinking from a stemmed glass next!
(Even worse, in just a couple of generations, he ended up swinging it around like this.)
Canadian performance artist and humpy former erotic entertainment industry model Brent Ray Fraser recently appeared on France’s Got Talent, knocking one out for the panel.
A portrait, that is.
Slightly disappointing to discover that France’s version of Simon Cowell’s talent show has exactly the same format as the UK one – right down to the camp judges. Though they seem to have economised on Ant and Dec, opting for just a single sniggering Dec Francaise.
It is though rather impressive that France considers a naked, buff man basically masturbating with paint good family entertainment. Although Britain’s Got Talent has featured singing male strippers, they kept their stuffed undies on. Mr Fraser’s paint-balling would bring the safety curtain down over here.
France however seemed très amusant. And it was very touching to see how excited women in the audience and particularly the two young lads in the audience got over this big piece of art.
To their credit, the French didn’t seem to mind that Fraser appears to have learned their tongue from John Wayne.
An earlier work of Fraser’s (below) got some shares on t’internet a while back. His naked hike to the top of a Canadian mountain to paint a Maple Leaf with his pride and joy is something of an epic. It looks like a great workout for the calves. Not just up all those steps – past gawping Japanese tourists – but all that tippy-toeing Fraser has to do to reach the canvas on the easel.
It also looks as if this penis painting lark might be a form of jelqing. Mind you, as Fraser dragged his poor paint-smeared glans back and forth across the raspy canvas I found myself wondering whether you have to be circumcised to be a naked painter. My snug uncut bell end certainly isn’t used to that kind of exposure.
Either way, Men’s Health really need to run a big spread on Fraser and his inspiring and creative fitness regime.
Cristiano chilling at Mr Armani's place. (But tensing his abs.)
A write-up in La Vanguardia of my lecture ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – a Permanent Spectacular Revolution’ at the ‘Men in Movement‘ conference in Barcelona last week, which was organised by the Arts and Humanities department of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Many thanks to everyone involved for their hard work and kind hospitality. With special thanks to Dr Begonya Enguix Grau, the driving force behind this timely event – someone who not only knows her anthropological onions, but also the best places to visit in Barcelona and was great, generous company despite having broken her toe the previous week.
She even managed to organise warm and sunny weather in late November.
While prepping for my Barcelona lecture, ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – a Permanent, Spectacular Masculine Revolution’, this video serendipitously popped up into MetroDaddy’s timeline on Twitter.
It’s an exploration of the meaning of being called ‘metrosexual’ by professional bodybuilder and popular online fitness guru Steve Cook, who has his own YouTube channel SwoldierNation where he offers workout tips, vlogs, and totally ‘hench’ eye candy to those who wanna be like him or just wanna be with him.
There’s a whole humpy army of these online fitness coaches/ exhibitionists today – and according to my buff and brainy Chilean stand-up chum Villouta, they are making Men’s Health magazine look lame.
Like most of these YouTube heroes, Cook is an aesthetic/physique bodybuilder – that is, one that aims to look hot rather than HUGE. Horny rather than Arnie. Cover model rather than Rambo. He is out and proud about his metrosexuality, and says he’s been called metrosexual since high school – though not always in a positive fashion. In the vlog he rather touchingly shares with us his extensive product stash.
He also gets a pedicure, enjoys the comfy pink ‘girly’ chairs and then confronts some rather terrified looking mall-goers about what they understand ‘metrosexual’ to mean. I suspect they were as intimidated by his preposterously good looks, awesome body and self-confidence as much as the questions. I think I would have fainted.
Reading between the lines, Cook seems keen to emphasise that ‘metrosexual’ doesn’t mean ‘non heterosexual’ (he’s a married, hetero father). But then he does live in America, a country which since the early Naughties has had regular nervous breakdowns about the possible ambiguity of metrosexuality – hence those very American reaction-formations ‘machosexual’, ‘ubersexual’, ‘heteropolitan’ and ‘lumbersexual’. Which were in some ways oddly ‘gayer’ than what they were trying to run away from.
So kudos to Mr Cook for refusing to run away from the ‘metro’ tag and having the cojones to embrace and pamper it instead.
Of course, Cook who was born in 1984, is more of a second generation metrosexual – that’s to say, spornosexual. He has fashioned his own body into the ultimate accessory and hot commodity. A product. A brand.
And I for one am certainly buying. Even if he isn’t so great at research. He doesn’t seem to know who his ‘daddy’ is….
As ever, though the Brits are ahead of the curve, and more relaxed about the gay thing – even if their abs aren’t always Olympian standard. The short but charming video below by Jenny Wotherspoon (accompanying an excellent piece on spornosexuals by Theo Merz in The Daily Telegraph) is comprised of interviews with self-confessed spornosexuals from Newcastle, North East England – who aren’t ashamed of their love of lycra, or much bothered their own, more traditionally-minded parents keep asking them ‘are you sure you’re not gay?’.
There will be a range of very interesting, esteemed and knowledgeable contributors, and I will have the slightly unnerving honour of presenting the opening lecture, ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual: A Spectacular, Permanent Revolution’, on Wednesday 18th November at 6pm. So I’ll be sure to show plenty of slides and video clips of much hotter chaps than me.
The following day at 15.30 I’ll be on a panel discussing Men and Representations, presenting a short, mostly clean talk probing ‘Mainstream Male Anal(ity)’.
‘We all look but only some of us see’ is the slightly pretentious tagline for this new ‘Home Alone’ TV ad for the UK household furnishing store Habitat, part of their #HabitatVoyeur campaign.
Perhaps I’ve been doing too much ‘voyeuring’ online, but what I see when I look at the beginning of this ad, before the camera pulls back, is an aroused young man enjoying a hard furnishing – the head thrown back, the open mouth, the ecstatic bouncing, the Habitat pillows in the background.
Mind you, given the pervey conceit of the campaign – gawping through people’s windows, and the fact the previous ad had us spying on a couple snogging on an expensive sofa – maybe I’m not seeing too much. Maybe I’m seeing exactly what I was supposed to see.
Perhaps that’s why, when the camera dollies out and reveals the chap is, in fact dancing around his retro-hipster studio flat in his red socks and pants rather than doing a reverse cowboy, he appears to knowingly tease us by doing a spot of twerking in the full-length mirror before bopping into the bathroom, backwards.
Either way, I don’t think I’ll be dreaming of that coffee table.
So says pretty much everyone in Legend about Tom Hardy’s looks. And the latest re-telling of the story of Ronald and Reginald Kray, the sharp-suited, impeccably-groomed, glamorous gangster twins who ruled 1960s London’s underworld, is a mostly enjoyable movie which often gladdens the eye (even if it makes you wince a bit during the violent scenes).
How could it not? After all, it stars not one, but two Tom Hardys – he plays, as everyone must know now since it’s the whole conceit of the movie, both twins.
Despite this, it does manage to get a little boring sometimes. Legend makes the mistake of thinking that we’re more interested in ‘Reggie’ than ‘Ronnie’ – because he wasn’t the mad, ‘gay’ one.
So it has a from-beyond-the-grave voice-over ostensibly provided by Reggie’s first wife, Frances Shea (Emily Browning) who committed suicide in 1967, two years after their marriage. The narrative focus of the film is essentially on what it portrays as her doomed attempt to ‘save’ Reggie, domesticate him and make him ‘normal’ – and how this eventually kills her. But no one, apart from Frances, wants him to be normal (and maybe she didn’t either: her family disputes the film’s victimy portrayal of her). Certainly the audience doesn’t, they just want him to get busy with a ball-hammer.
What everyone – or was it just me? – wanted from Legend was a gayer version of Hardy’s best performance as Britain’s longest-serving solitary-confinement muscular psychopath in Bronson (2008) – which come to think of it was pretty gay anyway. And you do get some of that when ‘Ron’ is on camera: Hardy’s ‘fat poof’ is often frighteningly funny.
But I put the names ‘Reggie’ and ‘Ronnie’ in quotes because at a visual level Legend isn’t about the gangster twins, or London in the 1960s. It’s about Tom and his very ‘hot’, very 21st Century, very narcissistic on-screen sexuality – split into two halves, mad, ugly, gay ‘Reggie’ – and straight, pretty, sympathetic ‘Ronnie’, which fight it out for dominance in this psycho costume drama.
That’s why everyone talks about how ‘lahvelee’ ‘Reggie’ is. Reggie Kray certainly wasn’t bad looking for a gangster, and he scrubbed up very nicely, but he was definitely no Tom Hardy (and Hardy, son of South West London bohemians, is definitely no Cockney). It’s also why we marvel at how ugly Tom manages to make himself as ‘Ronnie’ – so that when ‘Ronnie’ says that ‘Reggie’ got all the looks we actually find ourselves agreeing instead of laughing at the in-gag.
Any film about the Krays would struggle to remain focused on the Krays with Hardy in it. He’s proper Hollywood. But with two Hardys it stands no chance – the twins, their story and the mythology end up spit-roasted by Hardy’s double-ended charisma and great performances (even though his ‘Ron’ did look a bit like a David Walliams character sometimes).
So it shouldn’t perhaps be surprising that the questions get a bit personal. Hardy, 37, who is married (to a woman), famously ‘shut down’ a gay reporter at a press conference for Legend recently when he contrasted his character Ronnie’s openness about his sexuality with what he called Hardy’s ‘ambiguous sexuality’ as suggested in previous interviews.
‘What on earth are you on about?’ retorted Hardy, clearly annoyed, eventually clarifying the question himself: ‘Are you asking me about my sexuality?’ ‘Sure’ replied the reporter. ‘Why?’ asked Hardy. When no reply came, Hardy dismissed him with a curt ‘Thank you’.
The interview the reporter had in mind was a candid one Hardy gave a gay magazine in 2008 (to publicise RocknRolla, in which he played a gay gangster) where he acknowledged he had experimented sexually with men when he was younger: “’As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor for f***’s sake. I’m an artist. I’ve played with everything and everyone,” he said. “But I’m not into men sexually. I love the form and the physicality but the gay sex bit does nothing for me.”
After a backlash from some of the gay commentariat to Hardy’s rather more clenched response to the 2015 press conference probings, Hardy stated:
“I’m under no obligation to share anything to do with my family, my children, my sexuality – that’s nobody’s business but my own. And I don’t see how that can have anything to do with what I do as an actor, and it’s my own business.”
Despite the apparent use of his family and children as sexuality shields in that sentence, the gist of it is true. I also have some sympathy for Tom’s pique at being asked about his ‘sexuality’ (which always means non-heterosexuality) at a crowded press conference, being a married Hollywood heartthrob these days. Moreover, the seven-year-old interview quotes from the earlier part of his career don’t actually demonstrate that his own sexuality is ‘ambiguous’ or that he is now hiding anything – at most he stated that he was bi-curious when younger but is no longer.
That said, Legend is a film which makes his on-screen sexuality into a business. Show business. The drama of the movie is Hardy’s bi/two-sexual cinematic personae. Legend is a bit like Top Gun, but with ‘Tom’ playing both Ice Man (Val Kilmer) and Maverick – where Ice Man wins (and Kelly McGillis kills herself).
‘Reggie’, Hardy’s straight half, aspires, somewhat, to normality; ‘Ronnie’, Hardy’s gay half, revels in deviancy and keeps dragging ‘Reggie’ back to the bent and crooked – and making sure they never part. That’s why Ron is portrayed as openly – and unambiguously – homosexual (“I’m a ‘omosexual”, “I prefer boys”) not interested in women, when in fact he described himself as bisexual (and married a woman while in prison). Reg is portrayed as straight, when he seems to have also been bisexual, but not so openly as Ron.
Yes, sexuality is a confusing business. No wonder the movie simplifies things – just like the popular press.
Reginald reportedly ‘came out’ in a letter published shortly after his death. Here’s how it was covered in a UK tabloid the Sunday People in 2000, headlined: ‘REGGIE KRAY CONFESSES FROM GRAVE: I AM GAY’:
GANGSTER Reggie Kray has made an amazing confession from beyond the grave – his hardman image concealed that he was GAY.
Reggie poured out his darkest secret in a letter written as he faced blackmail over his homosexuality.
He handed me the astonishing two-page admission in a prison visiting room and asked for it to be published after his death.
So there you have it. Reggie was a self-confessed (dead) GAY homosexual. Except he wasn’t. The very next sentence in the same report reads:
The once-feared East End crime boss wrote: “I wish for the public to know that I am bisexual.”
‘Gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are often mixed up with ‘bisexual’ in the accounts of the twins’ lives, because culturally we tend to mix up ‘gay’ and ‘bi’ when talking about men. Although attitudes are changing, we often still too often think of male bisexuality as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or ‘queer’ (because it’s ‘emasculating’ – e.g. ‘once-feared’). Whereas female bisexuality tends to be thought of as heterosexual (because it’s ‘hot’, or because female sexuality is ‘complicated’). And as Hardy himself has discovered, admitting to a bi-curious youth can mean that you are assumed to be at least bisexual or ‘ambiguous’ in the bedroom as an adult.
I don’t claim to know anything about Hardy’s ‘real’ sexuality – I’m totally out of the celebrity sex gossip loop, which frankly, is usually mythology and fantasy anyway, even and especially when provided by other celebs. Likewise, ‘gaydar’ is a very faulty instrument indeed, prone to squealing feedback and hair-raising short-circuits. (And unlike it seems almost everyone else on the planet, I have no information and no opinion on the other Hollywood Tom’s ‘real’ sexuality either.)
Besides, a few slutty selfies aside, I’m much more interested in Tom H’s on-screen sexuality. Which is radiantly, brazenly bi-responsive. It’s not ambiguous – it’s ambisexual. Hardy’s dazzling bi-brilliance lights up the screen – it is what makes him such a charismatic, watchable actor, in the mould, dare I say it, of some of the greats, such as James Dean and Marlon Brando (cutely, Tom is the same titchy height 5’9”, as Marlon).
There’s a rather ridiculous Romeo & Juliet scene in Legend where a drunken ‘Reggie’ proposes to Frances through her bedroom window at the top of a drainpipe. But thanks to Tom’s tender talents, instead of scoffing at the cheesiness of it, you find yourself hoping, when the hard man fishes out the engagement ring, that he doesn’t fall and hurt his lahvlee face.
Regardless of his private sexuality, the ‘business’ of Hardy’s on-screen sexuality in many of his other movies is definitely not monosexual, depending as it does on a certain homoerotic-homosocial appeal, and a ‘hard man’/‘soft man’ tension, androgyny even. In addition to his early Band of Brothers/Black Hawk Down fresh-faced, all-boys-together soldierly roles, he’s, as we’ve seen, played a gay gangster before. In Inception he psychically ‘cross-dressed’ and delivered some wonderfully camp lines with panache: “Mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
In Warrior (2011) he played a heavily-muscled young MMA fighter forced to wrestle his equally fit brother in a Speedo – but with a happy ending. Even the bottom-feeder comedy This Means War (2012), in which two CIA killers compete for the same girl, was primarily about the passionately Platonic romance between him and Chris Pine, an actor who seems to be 70% hair and 30% teeth. It was only Hardy’s sympathetic skills as an actor and his dazzling bi-brilliance that made you care about their relationship, Pine or that atrocity of a movie at all.
Hardy has a special proclivity for playing ‘hard men’ who are soft and receptive inside. It’s what makes him such an entrancing sight on the silver screen, for men and women alike. It’s all there in his sweetly engaging face and twinkly eyes, with those big kissable, suckable lips – atop his street-fighter body (young Brando had an angel’s face on a stevedore’s body). Perhaps because of his appreciation for ‘the form and physicality’ of masculinity, Tom is the kind of bloke a lot of straight lads would ‘go gay’ for – and plenty of gay ones would go even gayer for. A man’s man in the modern sense of the phrase. Hardy’s career has been made at the place where desire and identification meet.
There is a magical kind of misrecognition involved in going to the movies: you see, especially when younger, the movie star as your idealised self. Your twin who is identical with what you should be, rather than what you are. In the darkness of the cinema, the brilliant shadow on the screen becomes your real, long lost twin – you sitting in the dark are the false, found one.
Which brings us back to the sexuality of Legend and the doubly-doomed nature of the deceased wife attempted-redemption storyline. Twins are by their very nature ‘homosexual’ that is ‘same-sexual’ – at least to non-twins looking in. They share the same conception, the same womb at the same time, the same birth, as wells as usually the same infancy, potty-training and childhood, and the same puberty. Intimacies far beyond those of lovers. Identical twins also reflect one another, in a narcissistic fashion. In a sense, they are born with the life-companion everyone else has to search for – and they can also watch themselves starring in the movie of their own lives.
So no wonder the Krays’ biographer recently claimed that the twins had sex with one another when adolescents. Or, as the Daily Mail headline put it: ‘THEY FOUGHT AS ONE. THEY KILLED AS ONE. BUT DID THE KRAY TWIN’S UNCANNY BOND LEAD THEM TO BREAK THE ULTIMATE TABOO?’.
Whether or not it’s true, it’s something that should definitely have been included in Legend. Tom-on-Tom action should not have been restricted to those fight scenes….
Saw Hue & Cry t’other night on the tellybox for the first time since I was a nipper.
This recently digitally restored kid-oriented Ealing Comedy presents as its climax a London-wide mobilisation of boys (and a few tom-boys) for a ‘big adventure’ – beating up baddies that the police had failed to nab, or even notice. I always loved that kind of film – in which kids show-up the groan-ups, and also give them a good hiding.
Officially the first Ealing comedy, it was directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to direct The Lavender Hill Mob) and shot in 1946, just as the Welfare State was being founded and the horrors of the past were being swept away by the post-war Labour administration of Clement Attlee – who had himself swept away Winston Churchill (the wartime leader who was not nearly so popular as official histories like to tell us).
Maybe it’s because I’m now the middle-aged enemy, but watching it today, Hue & Cry seems really rather disturbing to adult, contemporary health & safety sensibilities. All those kids in rags running around in bombed-out houses, wading through sewers and getting into fights with cops and robbers? Someone call social services!
The sainted Alistair Sim (and no, I didn’t write that book about him) makes an appearance as the enjoyably eccentric and laughably timid author of the ‘blood and thunder’ comic book stories that the barrow boy protagonist (played with enthusiasm but little skill by Harry Fowler) is obsessed with. Scarf-wearing Sim lives at the top of a German expressionist spiral staircase, his only companions a cat and the Home Service.
But it is bomb-damaged, bankrupted London that is the real star of this movie – shrouded in steam and smoke, with chimneys, spires and dock derricks the only things troubling the still-Victorian skyline. Digitally-restored and viewed on HD widescreen, the past seems almost unrecognisable – even the past in the form of vaguely remembering watching a scratchy print of it on 1970s TV.
Bomb-damaged London is populated, in its bomb-craters and burned-out shells, by its bomb-damaged cheeky-chappy lads and lasses. Intentionally or not, beneath all the jolly cockernee japery, Hue & Cry presents a kind of comic-book PTSD in which the apparently orphaned and traumatised children of the war can’t stop fighting a global conflict that is already over. Note the surprising sadism of some of the fight scenes, in amongst the slapstick (does that baddie really need his head banging on the ground that many times?).
After the clip above ends, the Cockney hero finishes off the mini-tached, side-parted, long-fringed evil-genius (played confusingly by the later Dixon of Dock Green) after a lengthy showdown in a bunker-esque bombed-out warehouse – by jumping onto his prone stomach from the floor above. With great relish. In an earlier scene the gang tie up a glamorous female villain and set about torturing her to extract the identity of her criminal boss (her terror of mice turns out to be the key to her interrogation).
The real version of this world is the one that twins Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in 1933, grew up in: the semi-feral East End gangsters famous for the violence, sadism and terror tactics they employed building and maintaining their underworld empire in the 60s – a parallel demimonde that was both part of and also an affront to the ‘white heat’, glamour and shiny modernity of ‘Swinging London’. The Krays were the sewer rats of social mobility.
Like the tearaway in Hue & Cry they also couldn’t stop fighting the war that they grew up with – but were only interested in their own war, no one else’s. When they were conscripted into National Service in the early 1950s they decided the British Army was their enemy. By employing all kinds of fiendishly childish and inventively savage tactics (Ronald being proper psychotic probably helped) they won, and the British Army, like the cops and the baddies in Hue & Cry, beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught, giving the twins dishonourable discharges.
They then employed much same tactics on rival London gangs, effectively eliminating the opposition. When this terrifying comic-book duo were finally sentenced in 1969 to thirty years maximum security chokey for murder, the judge dryly observed: ‘society has earned a rest from your activities’. Ronald died in prison in 1995, aged 61; Reggie in 2000, aged 66. But they had already been immortalised on the big screen in the rather good 1990 film The Krays, played by brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, working class London lads who achieved riches and fame by being pop stars in the hit band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s – rather than by switchblades and gangs.
Another working class pop star, Steven Patrick Morrissey, had a year earlier anatomised the highly homoerotic hero-worship of the Krays and the pernicious glamour of violence in his single ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’.
For all their crimes, ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ are almost as fondly-regarded in British culture as an Ealing comedy, and arguably most of the UK gangster movies made in the 1990s and Noughties that followed The Krays were cartoonish homages to the terrible twins. They were certainly comical, even when they didn’t intend to be.
Their story has now been revisited again in a recently-released UK film Legend, starring Tom Hardy playing both roles. I’ve seen it and will offer you my pearls about it shortly. Suffice to say that it’s not so much about Ronald and Reggie, or about class, or about London in the 1960s.
It’s all about Tom – and the 21st Century’s obsession with male sexuality.
Even if they are wearing numbered, different-coloured shirts.
Well, can you come up with a better explanation what the rugger-buggery is going on in this slightly creepy latex-laden ad for Lucozade Sport ‘Strictly for the Home Nations Only’?
Pegged to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Twickenham and starring big buff bearded England captain Chris Robshaw and chums, I’ve watched it several times and it still makes no sense to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t follow rugby. Or maybe it’s because I’m not an advertising creative who pretends to follow rugby.
The alternative explanations seem kinda kinky-gimpy. Are we meant to wonder what really went down in the back of that minivan when those norty Wallaby wannabes were cornered in the underground car park? By those strapping England lads wearing muscle-tees and expressionless faces? All that bad acting should definitely carry a Triga warning.
Yes, of course, the ‘straight’ subliminal commercial message here, hedged around with misfiring humour, is that if you drink Lucozade Sport, a sugary ‘recovery drink’, you will look like Robshaw. This is generally the way the supplements industry works – some ads more explicitly than others. But I’m not sure that ‘acceptable’ message isn’t drowned out here by more disturbing/confusing ones. Masculinity as male impersonation – a Mission Impossible. (This, after all, is what team sports fans are doing when they wear a replica shirt.)
I admit I’m biased: the recent fashion for styled-beard-with-styled-hair looks to me like a hairy onesie, a mullet mask. One that I imagine wearers peeling off at the end of the day, breathing a sigh of relief, applying lots of wet wipes to their face and neck – and leaving it to soak in a bucket by the bed.
Mind you, I still totally would ‘wear’ Robshaw.
PS This web ad below from the same campaign is also v confusing – but who cares?
Pot Noodle is an instant ramen-based snack popular with UK kids, students and others with limited cooking facilities or skills – or, arguably, taste – that has a long tradition of jokey, slightly silly ads.
The latest one to air on UK TV (‘You can make it’) is probably their funniest – and certainly their sharpest. It begins with a teenage working class northern lad lying on his unmade bed in his untidy room (complete with used tissues on the floor next to the bed) gazing up at his boxing posters, telling us that ever since he was a little kid he has has ‘always wanted to make it’ and is ‘chasing his dream’.
Cue a montage of Rocky-esque shots of hard workouts in gritty gyms and early morning jogs through rusty clichés of post-industrial landscapes – and then the build-up to the Big Fight in Vegas: ‘They said I’d never make it. But ‘ere I am!’.
When our kid steps into the ring, his family back home, including his apparently not-long-for-this-world Nan, go berserk: ‘THERE ‘E IS!!’
But the twist here isn’t in the shape of the noodles. It’s in the revelation that he’s not dreaming the ‘gender appropriate’ dream for someone of his background – to become a prize-fighter. Instead he’s more of a lover: he’s become a ring card boy – mincing around in a shiny lime and lemon two-piece for the visual pleasure of the audience between rounds. All of that hard training was to get fit for that two-piece. And those boxing posters in his bedroom were about the ring card girls not about the boxers.
But the ad doesn’t appear to be mocking him. He’s still the product’s hero. His family are clearly right behind him, while he’s deliriously happy. And so is the gentleman in the audience, who licks his lips appreciatively.
And the lad does have great pins.
The ad has gone viral – which of course was the aim. It’s virality lies in the unexpected, ‘outrageous’ twist, of course – but also in the twist to the ‘uplift’, which turns out to be more Billy Elliot than Rocky.
After all, the ending of the ad isn’t really so outrageous or even so strange nowadays. We’re living in a world where masculinity has lost its traditional certainties, opening up all kinds of possibilities. A world where millions of young men dream of being pretty and ‘objectified’.
Though usually their ring card dreams are aimed at the cover of Mens Health.
Apparently, French briefs will turn your ‘oeufs’ into a tasty and nicely-presented h’omelette. Should you be attacked by a smiling, impeccably retro-styled woman with a hammer.
This viral ad for men’s underwear by Le Slip Francais is certainly attention – or rather, nut – grabbing. Particularly in when you compare it to the sexed-up advertising of, say, Armani and CK, appealing as they do to male sensuality and desirability, not to mention open-legged, under-dressed male vulnerability.
But I’m not sure this message will sell many briefs to men who aren’t very heavily into CBT.
Though perhaps the target audience (as my advertising friend Honourable Husband pointed out elsewhere) for this oeuf-hammering is actually women – who are looking for an Xmas present for a male partner.
If so, I would say that the target female buyer is one that feels somewhat ambivalent about their man.
Whatever this ad for designer castration anxiety’s merits, I think the art direction is delicious. Note how the lamp-shades, the stereo-gram top and the hammer-wielding lady’s nail varnish all match.
It’s the details that matter when you’re making ‘oeufs’ splatter.
“Just how badly do you treat your car?” asked the step-father of a 20 year old woman recently in an ‘ad’ for her somewhat neglected gold Peugeot 307 with 91,000 miles on the clock.
“I bet it isn’t as bad as this stinking, petri dish of McDonald’s infested filth my step-daughter calls her wheels” he went on in his unconventional sales pitch. “She has left her car in our carpark and I decided to give it away before it makes me throw up a bit in my mouth.”
The stepdaughter-shaming story about her dirty car got a lot of traction in the media – and also got the apparently irate dad a lot of free publicity for his motoring blog. We all love the shameful joy of a story about a filthy car. Or at least, a car that is filthier than ours.
John, 27, a plain-taking Yorkshireman has seen a lot of filthy cars in his time. “To be honest, some of them made that ‘stinking petri dish of McDonald’s infested filth’ sound quite appetising” he says. Almost nothing phases him. He has seen humanity in its true colours. And smelt it.
John you see works valeting traded-in cars at a busy used car dealership. He cares for cars that the previous owners have often fallen out of love with some time ago. His job is to make them look loved again – so someone else will fall for them. Sometimes Hercules had it easier with the Augean Stables.
The dirtiest, most unloved car he every had to clean was a Range Rover that belonged to a farmer. “It took four days to clean it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had to start by shovelling the boot out”. For his troubles John found himself with a nasty case of ringworm.
Dirty cars can be a real health hazard as well as an aesthetic one. He once caught folliculitis from a Honda Civic. “The previous owner must have had the infection and not worn a shirt – we’d been having a heatwave. Fabric seats are very absorbent.”
The filthiest item he’s ever found? “Probably a pair of very heavily-soiled frilly pink nickers – stowed under the passenger seat of a Porsche Boxster.”
The strangest item? “One very worn fleshy beige high heel, under the passenger seat of Subaru Estate. You would think that the owner would’ve noticed it was missing!”
John finds lots of ladies’ collapsible brollies – a shelf on the wall of his corner of the garage sports three abandoned ones, just from that week. He also finds sunglassess. “People tend to come back for those.” Unlike, say, soiled frilly pink panties, then.
“Some of the things people left behind can be quite poignant” says JOhn showing me a Valentines card, still in the plastic wrapper, found in the glove compartment of a Ford Focus. “Did he/she forget to post it? Or was it an ‘emergency Valentines card’? We’ll never know”.
Does he finds many condoms? “Nope, never. But I did find lots of little see-through re-sealable plastic bags in a black C-Class Merc.” I wonder what they could have been used for?
Bad car odour is a perennial problem. Dog smell is almost impossible to get rid of: “You can try shampooing the carpets and seats but it just ends up smelling of wet dog, which is even worse of course.”
Mould smells the worst though. “Very difficult to get rid of it once it takes hold. Often find it in cars that have had kids in them. Milk spilt on fabric seats just seeps through the foam to the bottom where it festers and turns mouldy – then the mould grows through the seat and comes out the top. Once the spores spread it grows everywhere, on the window sills and door handles.”
Car owner’s strategies for dealing with pongs can be eccentric. “The Fiesta I cleaned this morning had four air Xmas tree fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror.” He reaches into the bin and shows me them: Artic Ice, Black Ice, Strawberry and New Car. All of them ancient and shrivelled.
The worst carpets to clean are the woolly ones in cheaper cars. “You can never get the rubbish out of them it just sticks. Cleanest cars tend to be Prestige cars like Mercs, BMWs, VWs, Jags. They also have better quality carpets, that are easier to clean.”
Is there a difference between men and women’s cars when it comes to vehicular hygiene? “Men’s cars tend to have more rubbish in them, but stuffed into door pockets and into the boot or glove compartment where they can’t be seen from outside. Women’s cars often have stuff just thrown everywhere and make-up on the controls.”
The cleanest car he’s seen? “An elderly couple brought in a Jag which was absolutely immaculate. That was the cleanest trade-in ever. They’d obviously ages valeting it inside and out.”
Such patience tends to be lacking in the younger generation. “Most just can’t wait to get rid of their old car once they’ve found a new one. And don’t seem at all embarrassed about the state they’re in when they hand them over. But I can’t complain too much as it keeps me in work!”
With that John gets back to combing out the curly carpet in a Fiat Punto that looks like its previous owner was a herd of especially inconsiderate wildebeest.
‘There is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual.’
Until quite recently, this statement was regarded as common sense. More than this, it was a kind of widely-shared article of quasi religious faith, as prescriptive as it was descriptive. An Eleventh Commandment.
Heterosexuality was the default, normal, right, setting and anything that strayed from that was homosexuality. That is to say: sinful, wrong, ill, odd, hilarious, niche.
This heterocentric, essentially monosexual world-view was not just conventional wisdom for many straight people. It was also shared by surprisingly large number of (usually older) gay people, who sometimes regard bisexuality as a kind of heresy, or at least a cop out. What’s not straight must be gay, otherwise you’re just kidding yourself and letting the side down.
But common sense can change. And articles of religious faith can fall. There has been a revolution in attitudes in recent years that has shaken sexual certainties to the core. Compulsory heterosexuality, and the idea that any ‘deviation’ from it is homosexual, is no longer so compulsory. People have lost their faith in monosexuality.
According to a recent, widely-publicised YouGov survey less than a third of UK residents now agree that when it comes to sexuality ‘There is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual’. While nearly two thirds (60%) agree with the once heretical statement ‘sexuality is a scale – it is possible to be somewhere near the middle’.
Most strikingly of all, this figure rose to three quarters of 18-24 year olds. Half of whom placed themselves somewhere on that scale as something other than 100% heterosexual. While a remarkable 43% of them describe themselves as being, to some degree, bi-responsive.
It was the pioneering American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who invented the 0-6 scale used in the YouGov poll (0 = totally heterosexual; 6 = totally homosexual) back in the 1940s. Like Sigmund Freud, Kinsey believed that humans were basically bi-responsive, that human sexuality was a spectrum and that humanity could not be divided up into gay goats and straight sheep. Kinsey argued that although most of the pressure was to be heterosexual, society’s ostracism of homosexuals also forced them into exclusive relations with the same sex. In a society with less restrictive mores, in which homosexuality was tolerated and integrated, Kinsey, who was himself bisexual, believed sexual interaction with both sexes would become the norm.
Seventy years on, mores have become less restrictive, the stigmatisation of homosexuality has greatly diminished – and the availability and insatiability of online porn has opened the eyes of many to practises once deemed so immoral and unnatural they were unmentionable. And on paper, it would appear that Kinsey has been largely vindicated – at least as far as young UK heterosexuals are concerned.
The fact that only half of 18-24s say they are completely heterosexual is a sign that the younger generation is abandoning monosexuality as a belief system – which has to appear to be a universal truth, not a minority or ‘niche’ cult. It’s also an indication that a theoretical level of bi-responsiveness has become or is becoming the norm. Most may not be actively exploring it (20% of 18-24s and 27% of 25-39s say they have had sex with someone of the same sex), and most of the less than 100% heteros huddle at the heterosexual end of the spectrum, but they are touchingly keen to be – or at least appear to be – open-minded. Half of heterosexual 18-24s say that if the right person of the same sex came along at the right time they could be attracted to them.
Perhaps the collapse of compulsory heterosexuality and the crisis of monosexuality shouldn’t be so surprising. A couple of years ago a survey into male grooming found that half of UK men now describe themselves as metrosexual, and want to be beautiful. Men, especially young men, have in the last decade or so, been given permission to enjoy products, pleasures, practises, prettiness and potentials that were previously strictly for ‘girls and gays’.
Little wonder that as gender norms have relaxed they have become more open-minded about sexuality itself. As I’ve argued before, men in general are less hard on the gays nowadays because they’re less hard on themselves – no longer needing so much to project their ‘weaknesses’ into the despised, or just patronised, ‘other’.
Instead, they now want to show how accepting they are of the ‘other’ – but most particularly they want those kinda fun, kinda kinky ‘weaknesses’ back now, thanks very much, now that they are much more into themselves than they used to be.
In Kinsey’s own country the US, where monosexuality was even more entrenched than in the UK, a sea-change is afoot too, but one that seems by some measures to lag behind the UK, and lead it by others. A YouGov survey there published shortly after the UK one found that 31% of under-30s plot themselves as something other than completely heterosexual on the Kinsey scale – compared to 78% of the general population who say they are completely heterosexual, and 4% who say that they are completely homosexual.
Unfortunately, there is no 18-24 category in the US data, so that 31% figure for under 30 non-heterosexuality is difficult to compare properly with the UK figure of 49% (though the UK figure for the next age category 25-39 is 42%). However, as in the UK there is clearly a major generational shift at work, with young people being much more open-minded. ‘No homo’ isn’t quite so ‘no homo’ as it used to be.
Some of the other data available does suggest that the US is still more monosexualist than the UK. Nearly half (48%) of Americans believe ‘there is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or you are not’ compared to only 27% of Brits. (However, the UK question/statement reads: ‘there is no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual’; the US question/statement replaces ‘homosexual’ with ‘not’, which is perhaps itself symbolic).
Which is to say, half of America does not believe there is such a thing as bisexuality, and thus any deviation from heterosexuality is just homosexuality. Amongst Republicans that increases to 63% – and stands at 58% in the South, suggesting a monotheistic basis to monosexuality.
Only 39% of Americans agree with the statement that sexuality is a scale – compared to 61% of Brits. And only 27% of US heterosexuals say that if the right person came along they could possibly be attracted to a person of the same sex, compared to 38% of Brits. (Though this may be a function of British politeness.)
All that said, c. five times as many young Americans identify as bisexual as young Brits. 10% of American 18-29s, compared to just 2% of UK 18-24s, and 2% of Americans of all ages. And five times fewer young Americans identify as gay or lesbian than UK young people do: 10% of UK 18-24s (compared to 6% for all ages) and 2% of US 18-29s (compared to 4% for all ages).
It’s difficult to know for sure, especially from this side of the Pond, whether this is a measure of greater enlightenment and inclusivity about sexuality amongst young people in the US and a related diminished need for distinct gay and lesbian identities – proving Kinsey right about gay people becoming less sexually exclusive as they became more integrated. Or whether something else is going on, especially given the lower levels of tolerance and acceptance for homosexuality in the US compared to the UK. Perhaps as some older gay people like to complain, young gay and lesbian Americans are ‘hiding’ their ‘true’ sexuality in ‘fashionable’ bisexuality..
Or maybe the reason so many young Americans choose to identify as bisexual is precisely because the belief in monosexuality has been so devout and oppressive there for so long – on both sides of the gay/straight divide.
What better way to flip the older generation the bird than to declare an identity which by definition rejects their cherished sexual religion?
Men are five times more likely to describe themselves as ‘gay or lesbian’ than women: 10% of men compared to 2% of women. (In the US the figure is 5% for men and 4% for women.) When it came to ‘bisexual’ the numbers were evenly split at 2% for men and women alike.
7% of Conservative voters described themselves as ‘gay or lesbian’ compared to 4% of Labour voters – despite the fact that male homosexuality was decriminalised under a Labour government in the 1960s, and it was another Labour administration in the 90s & Noughties which did away with the remaining discriminatory laws – in the teeth of Conservative opposition. Rather than attribute this all to Cameron’s recent successful co-option of gay marriage, perhaps a better explanation for the fact there were nearly twice as many Conservative gays and lesbians as Labour is to be found in the data showing social class ABC1 were four times more likely to describe themselves as gay or lesbian (8%) than those in C2DE (2%). Class and income doesn’t just influence your voting, but also your declared sexuality. Interestingly, the numbers for ‘bisexual’ were the same for Labour and Tory voters and both social classes – 2%.
Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, supporters of the centrist (and largely middle-class) Lib Dems were most likely to agree with the statement ‘sexuality is a scale – it is possible to be somewhere near the middle’, at 71%, compared to 47% of UKIP voters, who are much more likely to be C2DE (39% of UKIP voters believed there was no middle ground – you are either heterosexual or homosexual).
The great, throbbing Metropolis of London, as you might expect, had the highest number of self-described gays and lesbians: 8% compared to Scotland’s 3%. But wrong-footing stereotypes, ‘Midlands/Wales’ was only one point behind what is now surely the gay capital of the entire world, at 7%.
Is that a racquet in your pants? Or are you just pleased to see a camera?
Darkly handsome 29 year old tennis ace Rafael Nadal’s new ad for Tommy Hilfiger has more than a hint of a Tom Cruise Top Gun locker room scene about it.
It also goes further than any other recent underwear ads in commodifying celebrity cock. All but shoving it down our all-consuming maws. It’s a big budget version of a web-cam show.
The ad begins with the camera, apparently held by a heavy-breathing voyeur pretending to towel off after a shower – i.e. the viewing public – slyly staring at Cruise/Nadal’s pert bum filling out his designer jeans as he enters the locker room. Then zooming in as the winner of fourteen ‘Grand Slams’ strips, seemingly unawares.
We clock his athletic back, his cotton-clad buns, his tanned, toned, centre court thighs, his abs, and – WOAH! – his ‘open stance’ packet. Is that just the carefully-angled light? Or a prosthesis? Or is he actually turned on??
And is he going to have our eye out with it if he pulls those pricey pants down?
Just as we are about to find out, Nadal decides to end his little show – shaking his head at us with a naughty grin that says he knew full well what we were up to and enjoyed every minute of it. And then he volleys us his still warm ‘top-seeded’ Hilfiger underwear. So kind.
In the latest campaign Nadal’s world-class rear still has a starring role, but now, nearly 30 – and the envelope of what’s acceptable in mainstream advertising having been well-and-truly pushed in our faces – he not only sports chest hair but also, a very prominent penis.
Which reminds me. Perhaps I’ve been paying too much attention, but in the vid Nadal seems to be dressing to his right and ‘resting’ at 0:10. But by 0:11 he’s dressing left and a semi-finalist.
There are few fully-clothed pleasures greater than the solitary, blissful one of driving to one’s favourite music.
Pop on a beloved tune in the car and the world becomes a movie to your soundtrack, choreographed by your gear changes and pedal work, conducted by your talented hands on the wheel. Everything seems right and revvy in the world. Because, for once, just once, you literally set the tempo of life. You are DJ to the world.
Sometimes, when just the right track is playing and just the right stretch of road is unspooling before you, it even seems like the whole point of your existence and indeed the entire arc of human civilization has been to make it possible for you to sing along badly to ‘Paradise City’ by Guns N’ Roses at the National Speed Limit.
But watch out! There’s something in the road ahead! My god! It looks like a middle-aged academic! And he’s flagging you down!
So he can criticise your music collection.
“The car is the only place in the world you can die just because you’re listening to the wrong kind of music,” says Warren Brodsky, Director of Music Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel (who also perhaps deserves an honorary chair in the Drama Dept.) Mr Brodsky recently published the first textbook on how music can affect driving habits, “Driving with Music: Cognitive-Behavioural Implications” (Ashgate Publishing Company).
Essentially his argument is that the music you like is the music that will kill you. “Whether it’s Beethoven, Basie or Bieber is irrelevant,” the professor says. “Ideally drivers should choose tunes that do not trigger distracting thoughts, memories, emotions, or hand drumming along to the beat while driving.” In other words, music that evokes a response from you is the wrong kind of music to listen to in the car.
He writes: “…the optimal music for drivers to listen to are pieces with a moderate level of emotional energy (as intense emotional qualities of either positive or negative valence causes unwanted maladaptive driver behaviours)”.
A study he conducted with 85 drivers aged 18 found that 98% of them made driving errors (such as speeding and tailgating) when listening to music. Worryingly, however, 92% of them made mistakes when listening to no music at all. When listening to Mr Brodsky’s own soothing playlist of ‘safe music’ only 77% made a driving error. So ‘safe’ music seems to be better than no music.
What was ‘safe music’? Apparently, a blend of easy-listening, soft rock, and light jazz instrumental and vocal. Mr Brodsky should obviously be a Melody FM DJ.
Previous studies have suggested that ‘boom cars’ in particular and loud music in general decreases a driver’s ability to react to sudden movements and make decisions – reaction times diminished by up to 20 per cent in a Canadian study when a person was subjected to loud volume. (The effects of flashing LED dashboard lights and furry dice was not measured.)
Another, not terribly scientific study conducted by Confused.com used a driving app called MotorMark to monitor the driving habits of eight drivers over 500 miles. It concluded that listening to hip-hop and heavy metal music produced high risk driving habits, such as speeding, fast acceleration and last-minute breaking.
The most ‘dangerous’ songs included Johnny Cash’s ‘Get Rhythm’, Snoop Dog & Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Young, Wild and Free’ and… Guns N’ Roses ‘Paradise City’.
The ‘safest’ included Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, Jason Mraz ‘I’m Yours’ and Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’. Though some might be forgiven for wondering what the point of living was if it meant having to listen to Coldplay.
Face facts, it’s probably only a matter of time before we’re banned from playing music we actually like in our cars – or have to pay a higher insurance premium not to listen to droning tones selected by the academic DJ, Mr Brodsky.
Personally, I think they should ban passengers first. They’re a bad enough distraction in your own car, but even worse in other people’s. Whenever you’re being held up by someone’s dawdling it’s always a car with two heads bobbing away above the front seats as they have a good old natter – and tut about the really impatient man in the car behind them listening to Guns N’ Roses. Very loudly.
Mark Simpson wonders what all those dot-matrix signs are trying to tell us
In an age when there are so many channels to choose from and so many e-distractions to fidget with, there is one station with a very captive, very bored audience. You can’t change channels – or even turn it off. And you’d better pay attention because otherwise you might get a summons in the post.
So, as you might imagine, the content doesn’t exactly have to try too hard to get your attention.
If you drive on the UK’s trunk roads or motorway network you will be, whether you want to be or not, a regular viewer of Dotty TV – those helpful messages and pictograms displayed on those huge dot matrix screens suspended over the carriageway on cantilevered posts seemingly every mile or so.
Officially installed to help manage the road network by giving drivers useful live traffic information, such as warning of road closures or accidents, and also warn of emergency speed restrictions, they are most often used to display unaccountably annoying generic ‘safety’ messages such as
‘WATCH YOUR SPEED’
‘THINK! DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE’
I say ‘unaccountably annoying’, but it’s pretty accountable, really. You’re driving on the motorway, you’re so bored you could even listen to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. But Lo! You spy a large, expensive-looking flat screen TV panel in the distance. How thoughtful and kind to install that for the bored driver! And it looks like it has a message on it! A message for YOU!!
Excited you approach this sign, this portent, wondering what thrilling, stirring news it conveys, what exotic auguries it betokens. But as it looms up, it slowly dawns on you that this is not LA Story – where Steve Martin is given relationship advice by a chatty freeway traffic flow sign – but instead patronising, useless, and slightly snotty ‘safety advice’.
‘KEEP YOUR DISTANCE’
Dotty TV is like those 1970s public information films, but without the charming animation, the catchphrases or the cats.
After a hundred miles or so, or even just fifteen, these nannyish exhortations from on high begin to feel like regular, smarting slaps across the wrists by a Highways Agency ruler.
You begin to think dark, crazy, and rather childish thoughts such as: Why SHOULD I keep my distance? Or watch my speed? Or take a break? Who can I phone RIGHT NOW and talk to in a very animated fashion while my fuel runs out? And where did I stow that bottle of vodka?
Part of the irritation is of course the realisation that because you’re reading these signs you’re almost certainly not the kind of person these Maoist exhortations are intended for. You’re being taunted with reminders of the carefree fun that other more decadent drivers are having on the road – while you conscientiously read these bloody messages.
Some are just an insult to reason. For instance, the message:
‘TAKE EXTRA CARE WHEN TOWING’
I don’t think I’ve ever towed anything in my life, and I sincerely hope I never do anything so vulgar. But I have a hunch that if someone who is in fact towing something needs to be reminded they are towing something then they probably aren’t going to take much care at all – let alone extra care. Or read stupid signs.
But come the Bank Holiday weekend I have to read that message a zillion times before I have an overpriced Americano in a Welcome Break.
A YouGov survey a few years ago for motors.co.uk found that 43% of drivers ignore dot matrix signs. Another 4% claimed never to have seen one, ever. Clearly these people are much, much more sensible than me.
The philosophical problem with ‘safety messages’ is not only that the wrong people read them, it’s that in the context they’re presented, the infinite boredom of the liminal space of motorway driving – and on such huge, expensive, portentous signs placed, from the perspective of the driver, literally in the heavens – they are no longer safety messages. They are bureaucratic fortune cookie slogans exalted into life-changing maxims. You end up thinking about them far, far too much before something more interesting happens, such as picking your nose.
A little research reveals that the signs I’m moaning about aren’t dot matrix signs at all. They are actually called Variable Message Signs, or VMS, and began to be introduced to the UK about fifteen years ago. There are now c. 3000 of them along our trunk roads and motorways wagging their digital fingers at us.
The very latest VMS is the ‘MS4’, which the manufacturer describes as ‘offering a full graphics area with a matrix of LEDs in two colours. This makes it capable of displaying an almost infinite range of pictograms and legends.’
Shame that those infinite capabilities are mostly used to tell you
Even when a VMS displays potentially useful information such as road closures ahead, it suddenly becomes all tongue-tied and taciturn, after all those miles and miles of pointless advice. They all too frequently just say: ‘A1 CLOSED JCN 21-23’ without giving any more identifying info, despite acres of unused display room.
Even before the infinite capabilities of VMS, most people didn’t know their junction numbers, especially if the road isn’t a motorway. They tend, naturally enough, to go by place names, or intersecting road numbers. I’m convinced it’s a deliberate wind-up. You find yourself suddenly shouting something at the Dotty TV you never, ever thought you’d hear yourself say: