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Category: journalism (page 17 of 24)

Dame Democracy is a Size Queen



Mark Simpson on why size matters in the privacy of the voting booth

Dame Democracy is a bit of a size queen.

Actually, she’s a lot of a size queen. The vital statistics she’s really interested in are not the size of the money supply or the rate of inflation, but the heft of a politician’s inflatable. All those graphs, statistics and ‘swingometers’ on election programs are trying to answer the only question that anyone’s really interested in: which candidate is hung like a baby’s arm?

And like a lot of size queens, Dame Democracy instinctively feels that men with faces like a bag of spanners are more likely to be packing a bigger monkey wrench. This is why we vote for men – and they usually are men – that you might be forgiven for thinking no-one would lay if they were the last suit left standing at the office party.

Of course, there are exceptions: Kennedy was a looker and still made the Presidency of the United States. But the American public was swayed by the fact that his father had one of the largest penises in the American Underworld, and Jack’s encouraging habit of fucking everything that moved – including one or two things that didn’t, such as Cuba and Vietnam.

Nixon was a man who strutted around like the proud possessor of a real tonsil-teaser. Perhaps this is why he was elected in 1969. However, a special Senate Committee was set up to investigate the true dimensions of his masculine virtue, calling witnesses and threatening to subpoena certain ‘tapes’ which, it was rumoured, would reveal the ‘whole picture’ and the full extent of his naughtiness.

Exposed as a liar, Tricky Dicky spent the rest of his life in disgrace, proving that there’s nothing the public hates more than a pussy-teaser who doesn’t deliver in the luncheon-truncheon department. His successor, Gerald Ford, didn’t measure up either, despite the encouraging impression conveyed by his habit of losing his balance and falling forwards whenever he became excited.

President Carter, it goes without saying, had the smallest penis in the history of American democracy. Political scientists had to employ high-powered optical instruments to locate it. The American public was initially fooled by his lazy, self-satisfied Southern Drawl and his intimate knowledge of farming practises, but Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis soon revealed him for the short dick man he was.

So the US dumped Jimmy and plumped for Ronald ‘It’s Morning in America and I’ve got a woody’ Reagan whose virility was so enormous that it even promised to reach out into space, where it’s vast, hi-tech dome would protect America from penetration by Russian warheads, and eventually cow the Reds into submission. Which it did. Even if it actually belonged to Nancy.

That his Republican successor was called ‘Bush’ was hubris indeed. Despite his reaming of Saddam in the Gulf War, it was inevitable that someone called ‘Slick Willy’ would force him to submit. By the same token, Dole was never in with a chance in 1996 as his name rhymed with ‘hole’.

The last British leader to sport a world-class weapon was Winston Churchill, a man who didn’t need to read foreign muck like Freud to understand what sucking on a Havana cigar could do for his public image. But then we lost an Empire and gained Clement Attlee – someone Churchill once described as ‘a harmless, penisless, grass-grazing creature in the clothing of a harmless, penisless, grass-grazing creature’.

Sir Anthony Eden lost his dignity up the Suez Canal in 1956 but his successor Harold Macmillan thought he knew what the public liked when he crowed that we’d ‘never had it so good.’ Even though he was a promisingly tall man with large feet, the punters decided that they had had it better, actually, and dumped him for Harold Wilson who smoked a big black pipe.

But Wilson suffered a foreign exchange crisis which shrank the ‘penis in his pocket‘ and eventually lost to Heath who had the biggest nose in British political history but who led us into an unwilling threesome with Europe and its garlicky vagina dentata. Happily, he was brought to his knees by the stalwart miners (stiffened no doubt by being raised on Attlee’s free school milk, which did much to ensure the full muscular development of the lower orders).

So Wilson won again, but suddenly cut himself off only two years into his term of office. Callaghan plugged the gap but despite palling around with the TUC big boys he never quite got over this psychological blow and was forced into the hands of Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberals who massaged his frail majority for him.

Little wonder then that he was no match for Margaret Thatcher, a woman with the largest penis since Winston, her idol. Indeed it is rumoured that her penis was Winston’s, which after his death had been pickled in a jar at Conservative Central Office for the day when England would need it to rise again.

But Thatcher proved that even in the greedy world of politics you can have too much of a good thing. The Poll Tax and EMU had nothing to do with her downfall. In-party jealousy over her gargantuan Hampton Wick was to blame. Excessive endowment, you see, can blow up in your face (see also Alan Clark and Michael Portillo).

To appease the humming-bird tendency and heal the rifts in the party, Maggie’s successor, John Major, was chosen precisely because, despite his bragging name, he possessed an even smaller penis than Jim Callaghan. After being trampled on for years by Maggie Stryker, Major was a man that the Tories could at last look down to.

That he managed to defeat Neil Kinnock, a bald Welshman with a large nose who played rugby is further evidence that size alone isn’t always the determining factor. Sometimes the electorate will choose a man with a smaller penis simply because he doesn’t have red pubes. Shape and symmetry also count for something. Despite a consensus amongst psephologists that Blair’s membrum virile is bigger than Major’s Minor, there does appear to be some anxiety as to the actual width and weight of his instrument and whether it is one of those nasty numbers that has an unexpected bend to the left.

Whoever Britain’s next Prime Minister is, and whatever the dimensions of his electoral tackle, it seems inevitable that Dame Democracy’s attitude will eventually echo that of a size queen friend of mine who always crows about the size of her latest amour’s penis – ‘Mark! It’s MASSIVE!!’

Only to announce, usually about a week later, that she’s no longer seeing him, saying: ‘Oh, I didn’t like ‘im anyway – ‘e ‘ad a really small dick.’


(Originally appeared in Attitude magazine, 1997 and collected in Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture)

Trading in the past: Queer London

Once upon a time the streets of the capital heaved with jolly sailors and guardsmen looking for gentlemen to have fun with. Then gay liberation came along and ruined it for everyone, moans Mark Simpson

(Independent on Sunday – 11 September, 2005)

I consider myself something of a traditionalist. I enjoy traditional activities, such as cruising the Dilly, picking up guardsmen, sailors, dockers and young working men.

I am, in other words, a hopeless romantic. For ‘trade’, the masculine erotic economy which girded the loins of the greatest city in the world, lubricated the pistons of the greatest Empire and made saucy sense of the British class system is gone forever. The docks have gone, the sailors and guardsmen are all but gone – and, criminally, don’t wear their uniforms on the street any more, making them very difficult to spot. And as for the working men, well, they all live so far out of town these days and drive so fast in their white vans that it’s almost impossible to collar any.

All that’s left is a gay disco in the East End called, mockingly, ‘Trade’, where you can find shirtless gay lawyers on horse-tranquilizers eyeing one another up while dancing frantically at 5am. If you really want to.

Gone too are the painted queans, such as Quentin Crisp, and the respectable gentlemen in evening dress who pursued trade – trade who, for sex, for violence, for love, for money, for a few beers, for something to tell their mates about, frequently allowed themselves to be caught. Gone are the jostling, smoke-filled “known” (not “gay”) pubs. Gone is the whole vibrant and complex pre-gay bachelor world of male-male intimate relations that meant that perhaps most sexual activity between men before the 1967 decriminalisation involved men who were not queer. What we now call “homosexuality” or “the gay scene” was a much, much bigger business before so-called liberalisation.

Contrary to received wisdom, today’s out-and-proud gay world is in some ways a marginalised, airless, incestuous one compared to what went before in the “bad old days”. It’s only in the last 30 years or so, in other words, the period corresponding to the rise of “gay liberation”, that we have begun to believe that to have sex with another male you have to belong to a separate species. That, regardless of your interest in the ladies, if you wake up in bed with another male you have to move to Old Compton Street or the Castro, pronto.

As Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-1957 makes remarkably clear, just a few decades ago, significant numbers of (working-class) young men were not only moving freely between male and female partners but were happy to brag about it. So long as they were “butch” and active – or claimed they were – it would merely enhance their reputation with the lads. It certainly didn’t mean that they were “confused about their sexuality”.

Though you, dear reader, may be about theirs. It is, after all, a world that is almost unintelligible to us today. Even my nostalgia for “traditional” activities is precisely that: nostalgia. A slightly perverse, contemporary projection onto the past – a past that is now too “queer” and unfamiliar to grasp fully, possibly even by those who are still alive to remember it. As Houlbrook puts it: “Working class encounters with the queer transcended contemporary understandings of ‘homosexuality’ or ‘homophobia’. Intimacy, sex, blackmail, theft, and assault constituted a continuum…” A rather more exciting continuum than most homos today can handle – or would want to.

Perhaps this is why many gays today simply refuse to believe such a world existed, except as some failed prototype for the wonderful, self-contained, self-centred gay world they now live in: “God, all those sad, oppressed, self-hating homos chasing after straight men – why didn’t they get themselves down to the gym and buy some camouflage trousers?”

Thankfully, Houlbrook isn’t one of those gays. He’s a historian. “The world mapped out in this book is not a ‘gay’ world as we would currently understand it,” he writes. “The places are different. Soho has retained its importance, but today it seems almost impossible that Waterloo Road or Edgware Road could have been the site of equally important, diverse, extensive, and vital queer enclaves between the wars.” Edgware Road was the site of a large barracks; Waterloo Road the home of the Union Jack Club, a hotel for hundreds of randy young sailors on leave. As one contemporary put it: “The Waterloo Road was awash with seamen, most of whose bodies… were not only able but willing.”

Queer London, with chapters on “Geographies of Public Sex” and “Piccadilly Palare: the world of the West End poof” (spot the Moz reference) goes out of its way to present a map of London’s queer past that doesn’t merely see it as a world that was struggling to turn into Soho during Pride Week: “In exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the 20th century, we should lament possibilities long lost as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired.”

Obviously, it is the lost possibility of sex – and loving relationships – with sailors, soldiers and young working men men that I most lament. So does Houlbrook; or, at least, he sees this as the crucial difference between London’s contemporary gay world and its queer past. Unlike many other recent urban gay histories, this book gives equal attention to those who considered themselves “normal” but nonetheless socialised with, had sex with, and often loved other men. In other words: trade. The men who were at the very centre of the queer erotic economy and without whom Saturday nights in 1930s Soho would have been very dull indeed.

So we learn that “the most distinctive venues” were either military pick-up joints like the Grenadier (Wilton Place), Tattershalls Tavern (Knightsbridge Green), the Alexandra Hotel (Hyde Park Corner), and the Packenham and Swan (I’ll be visiting them all very soon, just to make sure they’re no longer “in business”); or those in working-class neighbourhoods in east and south London: dockside pubs like the Prospect of Whitby (Wapping Stairs), or Charlie Brown’s (West India Dock Road). In these venues, dock labourers, sailors from across the world, and families “mingled freely with flamboyant local queans and slumming gentlemen in a protean milieu where queer men and casual homosexual encounters were an accepted part of everyday life”. Perhaps Houlbrook is a little nostalgic too, after all.

To regard London’s trading scene as merely “prostitution” or “exploitation”, as many are inclined, is again to impose modern, patronising values on transactions: “Working men’s desires were more complex than the term ‘prostitution’ allows.” Money was not always exchanged (especially with sailors), but even when it was, most of the “normal” men trading themselves had jobs. For the most part, trade was an enjoyable and rewarding pastime activity that could also become a lasting emotional attachment.

Guardsman were notoriously rough renters (very capable of blackmail and violence, which was perhaps part of their appeal), but as one interviewed in 1960 admitted: “Some of us get quite fond of the blokes we see regularly… they’re nice fellows… and interesting to listen to. As for the sex… some of the younger ones aren’t bad looking…”

Or like the newly married Jim writing rather sweetly to his gentleman friend, John Lehmann: “I wish I was still seeing you Jack as you were the best friend I ever had… you were always such a good friend to me we had good times together Jack and I hope I shall see you some time.” Trade was a young man’s game, which usually lasted only for the period between adolescence and marriage. Once married, working-class men and their unruly erections would “move on”.

Why did the world of trade end? In part, because, like Jim, it got married. The post-war years saw a rise in prosperity which not only undermined the economic rationale for trade, it also made marriage possible much sooner. Rather than getting married in their late twenties and early thirties, young men were marrying in their late teens and early twenties. The rough and tumble world of “raucous male homosociality” was disappearing. Young men were socialising much more with women, who were now entering public life with money to spend themselves (and today, if the tabloid stories are to be believed, are lining up to be smuggled into Knightsbridge Barracks). Trade ended because the bachelor-culture of pre-war London ended.

Ironically, the final blow to trade and the public world of queer sex was delivered by Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the Act which decriminalised sex between consenting adult males in private 10 years later.

Key Wolfenden witnesses, Patrick Trevor-Roper (a Harley Street consultant) and Peter Wildeblood (diplomatic correspondent for The Daily Mail) pleaded for homosexual respectability in the language of the private middle-class home (sounding uncannily like gay marriage lobbyists today). Wildeblood claimed: “I seek only to apply to my life the rules which govern the lives of all good men; freedom to choose a partner and… to live with him discreetly and faithfully… the right to choose the person whom I love.”

However, as Houlbrook points out, both witnesses glossed over the queer spaces in which they were going to meet that partner. Wildeblood famously met the airman McNally in a Piccadilly Circus subway; Trevor-Roper was cautioned by a policeman in St James’s Park, a veritable bazaar for strapping Guardsman during the war.

To which I might add that for Wolfenden the “real perverts” were not the “congenital inverts”, but the “otherwise normal men” who took part in these aberrant activities, often in public. This is why prosecutions for indecency actually doubled in the 10 years following “decriminalisation” in 1967 (many of those convicted were married). Wolfenden, which was also a report into street prostitution, encouraged the law to go after the “real perverts”. All male sexual contact involving those under 21, those staying in hostels or hotels, rooming houses or prison, meeting in parks and public toilets (they were not “in private”), or while serving in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, remained illegal. In other words, probably the vast majority of homosex in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Even the consensual activities that led to the Montagu Scandal and public backlash which prompted the Wolfenden Report and eventually the 1967 reform itself would still have been illicit after ‘decriminalisation’ as they involved members of the RAF and were not conducted ‘in private’ – and would remain so for much of the next 40 years.

It’s probably just more sour grapes on my part, but it’s tempting to conclude that the law reforms of the last few years, such as the equalisation of the age of consent, ending the ban in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, and relaxation of the laws on ‘soliciting’ and “indecency” in public, happened not so much because of the tireless campaigns by gay equality reformers, or even the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, but simply because, one or two cruisey parks aside, most “traditional activities” in London had already come to an end.

The Gay Bomb


Mark Simpson drops the Gay Bomb

(Guardian & Out magazine June 13, 2007)

Look out! Take cover! Backs to the walls, boys! It’s the Gay Bomb!

No, not a bomb with fashionably styled fins or one that can’t whistle, but rather a proposed “non-lethal” chemical bomb containing “strong aphrodisiacs” that would cause “homosexual behavior” among soldiers.

Since the United States Air Force wanted $7.5 million of taxpayers’ money to develop it, it probably involved more than the traditional recipe of a few six-packs of beer.

According to the Sunshine Group, an organization opposed to chemical weapons that recently obtained the original proposal under the Freedom of Information Act, a U.S.A.F. lab seriously proposed in 1994 “that a bomb be developed containing a chemical that would cause [enemy] soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another.” The U.S.A.F. obviously didn’t know how picky even horny gays can be.

Despite never having been developed, the so-called Gay Bomb is a bouncing bomb – or perhaps a bent stick: it keeps coming back. The media have picked up the story of the Gay Bomb more than once since 2005 – after all it’s a story that’s too good to throw away, and, as this article proves, it’s a gift for dubious jokes.

Mind you, it now seems to be the case that the Pentagon didn’t throw it away either, at least not immediately. In the past the Pentagon has been keen to suggest it was just a cranky proposal they quickly rejected. The Sunshine Project now contradicts this, saying the Gay Bomb was given serious and sustained attention by the Pentagon and that in fact they “submitted the proposal to the highest scientific review body in the country for them to consider.” The Gay Bomb was no joke.

So perhaps we should seriously consider probing-however gingerly – what exactly was in the minds of the boys at the Pentagon back then.

The date is key. The Gay Bomb proposal was submitted in 1994 – the year after the extraordinary moral panic that very nearly derailed Clinton’s first term when he tried to honor his campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. military and that ultimately produced the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) compromise that allows them to serve so long as they remain closeted and are not reported.

The newly sworn-in Commander-in-Chief was successfully portrayed by the homo-baiting right wing – and by the Pentagon itself – as a dirty pinko Gay Bomb that was seriously weakening the cohesion of the unit and molesting the noble, heterosexual U.S. fighting man’s ability to perform his manly mission. “Why not drop Clinton on the enemy?” is probably what they were thinking.

The Pentagon’s love affair with the Gay Bomb also hints heavily that ticking away at the heart of its opposition to lifting the ban on gays serving, which involved much emphasis on the “close conditions” (cue endless TV footage of naked soldiers and sailors showering together) was an anxiety that if homosexuality wasn’t actively discouraged the U.S. Armed Forces would quickly turn into one huge, hot, military-themed gay orgy – that American fighting men would be too busy offering themselves to one another to defend their country. I sympathize. I too share the same fantasy – but at least I know it’s called gay porn.

Whatever its motivations or rationalizations, the DADT policy of gay quarantine has resulted in thousands of discharges of homosexuals and bisexuals from the U.S. Armed Forces, even at a time when the military is having great difficulty mobilizing enough bodies of any sexual persuasion and is currently being publicly questioned. But the Pentagon seems unlikely to budge its institutional back from the proverbial wall.

Its top commander, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, recently defended the policy in outspoken terms, saying: “I believe that homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.” (The good General probably didn’t mean to suggest that homosexual acts involving only one person or more than two were not immoral.)

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that even Joseph Heller would have had difficulty satirizing, may be confused and confusing, and it may or may not be repealed in the near future, but it clearly shows that the U.S. remains dramatically conflicted about itself and the enormous changes in attitudes and behavior that its own affluence and sophistication have helped bring about.

After all, the Gay Bomb is here already, and it’s been thoroughly tested – on civilians. It was developed not by the U.S.A.F. but by the laboratories of American consumer and pop culture, advertising, and Hollywood. If you want to awaken the enemy to the attractiveness of the male body, try dropping back issues of Men’s Health or GQ on them. Or Abercrombie & Fitch posters. Or Justin Timberlake videos. Or DVDs of 300.

Or even the U.S.’s newly acquired British-made weapons system for delivering global sexual confusion and hysteria known as ‘David Beckham’.

To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington: I don’t know whether they frighten the enemy, but by God they scare the Bejeesus out of me.

In a Darkened Underpass

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on, April 23, 2004 as ‘Who’s the hunted now?’)

In the seven years since she died in a high-speed car crash in a tunnel in Paris, the pictures of the bafflingly mangled black Mercedes that ferried Diana to her death have become almost as famous as its most precious passenger.

Looking at the pictures, snapped at night with flash photography (like many of the pictures of Diana), it’s difficult not to wonder at how such an expensive, glamorous, chauffeur-driven, bodyguarded limousine could end up such a shapeless mess – or how such a mess could have been a car at all, let alone such a famous one. To wonder how a limo whisking someone from the Paris Ritz could have turned so suddenly into a hearse. To wonder just how mangled the expensive, glamorous Diana was.

But of course, no matter how hard you look at the picture, you can’t see her – she has already been whisked off to the hospital where she would die soon after from “internal injuries” (something we know she had been suffering from for many years, and they were not caused by any car accidents). Until this week, Diana’s expiring body is literally obscene – “off scene” – in a way that much of her life was not.

Standing in for the totaled body of Diana, the wrecked Merc — the ultimate rubbernecking image – has somehow become a symbol not of prurience but of discretion. We all knew that pictures of a dying Diana in the back of the car were snapped by the paparazzi pursuing her moments after the impact, and that these landed on the desks of newspapers the next day. Until the CBS documentary about her death this week, no English-speaking publication or TV station has dared to show us the pictures.

The media always has to navigate between catering to public curiosity and voyeurism, and on the other hand avoiding provoking the disgust of their audience – with themselves. “What kind of lady do you take me for?” is ever the response of Dame Public when they feel they haven’t been romanced enough before being given “what they want.” The public could not get enough of Diana – but after her death, they turned out to be as bulimic as the shy, awkward, exhibitionistic, sophisticated, vulnerable, feisty girl they voraciously consumed.

Unsurprisingly, the British press has been fairly unanimous in its condemnation of CBS. The left-liberal Guardian denounced the way CBS had plumbed “new depths of prurience”; the Daily Mail thundered on about the “ultimate betrayal.” Much of the media here, though, had few qualms about showing images of, say, mutilated Americans in Fallujah. JFK’s head has, of course, exploded on U.K. prime time more often than fireworks on the Queen’s birthday.

Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Dodi al-Fayed, Diana’s consort that evening who also died in the crash, ordered his lawyers to write to CBS before the broadcast to make a “personal plea” stating, “We cannot imagine that CBS News would want to be the first enterprise to breach the collected understanding of the media based upon good taste, propriety, decency and sympathy.” Good taste, propriety, decency and sympathy are qualities that Mr. al-Fayed, the Pharaonic proprietor of Harrods and chief retailer of Diana conspiracy theories, is well known as exemplifying.

What is really remarkable is not that CBS showed these images but that these images have not been shown before, that for seven years we have been satisfied with the “discretion” of the mangled Merc in the “tunnel of death,” as empty as her womb (according to the doctor who famously testified at the British inquest that she wasn’t pregnant). Part of the reason why there are so many conspiracy theories is because people don’t want to let go of Diana or her “secret life.”

Diana, queen of the English-gossiping world in the last two decades of the 20th century, the celebrity princess, was anything but discreet herself (CBS was responding to rival NBC’s recent airing of tapes recorded by the princess talking about her marriage and confrontation with Camilla Parker Bowles in the early ’90s). Her life was a series of revelations, ever more dramatic and orchestrated, which left the British monarchy looking rather like her last ride.

But this was part of the disavowal of her death that was engaged back in 1997. It was the paparazzi, you see, rather than our own appetite for her — and her appetite for us — that turned Diana the huntress into the hunted, and that ultimately killed her. “They” wouldn’t leave her alone! “They” afforded her no privacy! “They” hounded her to her death! “They” have no decency!

I remember standing with the crowds outside Westminster Abbey in the September sunshine in 1997 as the funeral service for Diana was being conducted. In the passion and the heat a lady fainted. One of the many news teams there began filming the collapsed woman. A posh middle-aged lady shouted out “Have you no decency at all! She’s not well!” As one, we all bristled at the camera crew, who quickly fled. Satisfied, we all went back to the private business of crying in front of the myriad other TV cameras.

There was also much talk after her death about how “the boys” – William and Harry – would not be exposed to the same treatment. And out of “respect to Diana” or rather the public outcry/self-disgust following her death, the boys have been off-limits for much of their adolescence. However, the boys are growing up (William is 21; Harry, 19), and the death of Diana and the collective guilt associated with it is receding into the past. Photos of Prince William having his feet massaged at rugby matches by girlfriends and sharing ski lifts have made their way into the press despite protests from the palace. Most recently the world was ogling pictures of the heir to the throne, in snug Speedos at a water polo match.

The pictures are eerily reminiscent of some of the most famous images of Diana before her death – snapped on al-Fayed’s yacht in her bathing costume (allegedly after tipping the tabs off herself). Those shoulders, those long limbs, those cheekbones, those flashing teeth, that foggy, English, aristocratic skin. William is being offered to us by the media in almost as sexualized a fashion as his mother, even when taking part in something as innocent and boyish as a water polo match.

Much discussion followed about whether tight Speedos and their “anti-grab” material flattered William or not – and whether his wearing them would increase sales. The same Google search that listed these stories also provided a link to a posting on a gay Speedo fan Web site where, on the basis of the tiny picture, someone deduced with scientific precision that William is averagely endowed (“if not smaller — though that may be an effect of temperature”).

Tawdry, slightly pervy speculation about the “crown jewels,” yes. But is it really so different from the more innuendo-based noises the respectable press had been full of?

Interestingly, CBS insisted that its pictures of dying Diana were “tasteful” and featured only her “head and shoulders.” The program also featured the French doctor seen attending to Diana in the pictures, assuring us: “I can tell you her face was still beautiful. She didn’t have any injuries on her face.” This is both reassuring and slightly disappointing. You don’t have to be J.G. Ballard to see that horror and glamour are closely intertwined.

Celebrities tend to lead car-crash lives, and if they also happen to have car-crash deaths then who can blame us if we want to slow down and take a good look?

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

Mens Health Magazine – How Gay is It?

Mark Simpson probes Men’s Health – and finds it in painful denial

(originally appeared on Guardian CiF)

Isn’t it about time Men’s Health, the world’s biggest-selling ‘men’s lifestyle’ magazine, came out to itself?

I couldn’t get to sleep the other night and so resorted to flicking through last month’s UK issue: I find the pictures of semi-naked men’s perfect, sweating muscles and the droning narcissistic hypochondria of the copy in this notorious metromag strangely soothing.

Then I happened across a five page cringemakingly earnest article about ‘heteropolitans’ (complete with a deathly serious ‘Am I heteropolitan?’ questionnaire), which MH wants us to believe have replaced metrosexuals. Apparently metrosexuals were too gay and too vain. HETEROpolitans on the other hand are just perfect: they’re really, really hetero, really attractive, really buffed, really rich, really stylish and really successful. What’s more they also find the time to be really great husbands and dads, and are not in the least bit gay, vain, or even single.

Did I mention that they’re not gay already? And guess what? Men’s Health readers are all goody-two-shoes ‘heteropolitans’!

Now this single, childless, beer-bellied bum-bandit REALLY couldn’t get to sleep.

Who do they think they’re kidding with this guff? Their mother? Men’s Health, with it’s front page pin-ups of studly six-packed shirtless men and pages and pages obsessive-compulsive advice on how to get the perfect pecs/skin/low-fat soufflé has long been one of the most nakedly metro of the men’s metromags. You might be forgiven for thinking that the only questionnaire MH needs to run is: ‘Am I Gay? Or Just Bisexual?’

It looks like we’ll have to wait a while for that one. Of course most of its readers are not card-carrying homos like me (though most of them probably have a Boots Storecard). Or closeted. Or even particularly bisexual. Though I’d take a wild guess that a fair percentage of them are. But even the majority hetero readers of MH and other men’s shopping and gyming ‘men’s lifestyle’ mags are not that hetero – they’re clearly metro. Even if MH is in massive denial about this.

The prissy pretence that that any suggestion of gayness is utterly inconceivable between their pristine pages can lead to hilarious results: such as the recent MH sex guide which encouraged readers to get in touch with the hidden pleasures of their prostate gland by ‘getting your girlfriend to massage it for you with her finger’. Or maybe your boyfriend could do it with his penis? (In fact, it’s MH and consumerism in general that is really ‘massaging your prostate’, no vaseline.)

I haven’t been exactly what you’d call a devoted reader over the years (the UK edition of MH was launched in 1995), I tend to dip in when I’m feeling in need of masochistic motivation at the gym or just some eye-candy, but I don’t recall MH always being so comically keen to insist on its Totally Het credentials. Yes, like almost all men’s glossies, the copy didn’t openly acknowledge any of its readers might be homosexual, bisexual, bi-curious, or even just straight but-not-narrow. But then, with those covers it didn’t need to.

Obviously there’s been a rethink at MH Towers. MH is published by Rodale, an American-owned company and I suspect they’ve been influenced by all that mendacious ‘menassance’ marketing twaddle in the US last year in which manly manliness and old-time real-guyness supposedly made a comeback knocking that faggy metro back into the closet. ‘Reclaim your manhood – go shopping for moisturiser in a Hummer’, that kind of thing.

Maybe this faux-macho Hummersexual over-compensation works in God-fearing, Bush-voting, fag-baiting America – after all, as Gore Vidal once observed, Ernest Hemingway was a joke that only America couldn’t get. But it just looks as camp as a row of camouflage print tents over here. When it doesn’t come across just plain creepy.

Every month gets more surreal in the flawlessly worked-out world of MH. In addition to the usual advice on how to achieve the most desirable body on the dance-floor, the May issue of MH includes an oh-so butch ‘Spartan warrior workout’ based on the Chippendale epic ‘300’, random expressions of disgust at male homosexuality in the Dining Out section, and a ‘welcome aboard’ piece on the Contributors Page in which the editor chastises a new boy from Total Film for spending too much time reviewing films ‘in darkened basements with other men’.

Not to worry though lads, nothing queer about the new grooming editor: he’s a fan of Rocky movies. (I kid you not.) ‘We’re now ensuring he spends as much time in daylight and in the company of women as possible,’ smugly assures the – rather gay and grey looking – editor. Which means, I guess, that he won’t be spending much time in the gym. Or reading Men’s Health.

After taking rather a lot of paid advice from MH over the years, I have some advice for them I’ll offer gratis. The editorial staff at MH should give some serious thought to all those nasty stress hormones released into the bloodstream by having to live a lie, and the terrible things they do to complexions, hair and muscle tone.

Not to mention looking absolutely bloody ridiculous by being so nancy about mansex and so coy about something as natural and irrepressible as good old male vanity.

Especially when your business is built on it.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

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