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Category: journalism (page 2 of 6)

Does My Brain Look Big in This? Susan Sontag’s ‘Where The Stress Falls’

This week is Susan Sontag’s birthday. The famous, and possibly last American intellectual, died in 2004. Below is my somewhat irreverent review of her last book (Independent on Sunday, 2002)

The first sentence in Susan Sontag’s latest collection of essays is eight lines long, mentions Camus and Pasternak and ends with the word “impinging”. But would we have it any other way? Sontag dares to look serious in a way that is somehow enhanced rather than undermined by that Bride of Frankenstein stripe of grey she sports these days. To hold on to your seriousness is quite an achievement in an age of silliness such as ours, and you’ll be relieved to hear that Where the Stress Falls contains no pieces on Madonna or PlayStation 2, and definitely no recipes.

Instead you’ll find pieces with titles such as “A Note on Bunraku” and “Homage to Halliburton”, written in that learned, didactic and apparently effortless style which is not always quite so effortless to read. Serious Susan is not here to entertain you. Though cynics – i.e. me – might dub this collection: “Does My Brain Look Big in This?”

Susan Sontag is a living legend, even though we might be forgiven for thinking that she was left behind with the 20th century, rueful amidst the ruins of the modernism that we have abandoned for the gleeful barbarism of contemporary life. She’s definitely still here, though she might be feeling rather lonely. Sontag is, after all, the Last Intellectual in the Anglo-American world: Gore Vidal has turned into Truman Capote, Norman Mailer has turned into Moses, while Harold Bloom’s canon has turned out to be his winding sheet. On this side of the philistine pond, Jonathan Miller would be holding up the banner of seriousness and intellect, but alas, that injunction banning him from appearing in public is still in force.

Sontag knows this – in fact, this is her “brand” which she exploits adroitly – but seems charmingly determined to pretend there are other intellectuals left in the world: it’s just that they’re shirking their duties. In “Answers to a Questionnaire”, her response to a survey of intellectuals and their role, she complains magisterially how many times she’s heard intellectuals “pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which… they belong”. All the same, she’s careful to mention that she was “the sole American” to whom the French (they would be French) compilers sent their questionnaire.

Sontag even had her own “Spanish Civil War” in the 1990s, when she travelled to a besieged, ruined Sarajevo to direct by candlelight a production of Waiting For Godot. It was a dramatic gesture that was much larger than the drama itself: the Last Intellectual nursing the flame of modernism in a European city catapulted back into the Dark Ages. It was also a brave and inspiring — and sincere — thing to do, and it pointed up the ineptitude of most who toil by brain rather than hand these days when faced with embarrassing reality (one horrified New Yorker asked her son, also a writer, how he could “spend so much time in a country where people smoke so much”).

But is it merely the tainted cynicism of our selfish, rationalising age that inclines some of us to doubt Sontag when she complains about the enormous press attention she received and that she “forgot” that she was going to be billeted in a hotel full of journalists? Or causes us to chortle when she dismisses as “condescending” those back home who wondered whether the bleakness of Waiting for Godot was what the citizens of Sarajevo really wanted, but then sees no irony in later explaining she only staged Act I because she had decided that the distressed citizens of Sarajevo might not be able to bear the downbeat ending.

And then there is another question which keeps insistently suggesting itself like a barely suppressed snigger: is there something faintly camp about Susan Sontag? It dates back to the early 1960s when she tried to define what lives to avoid definition, to pin down that wiggly, ticklish thing in “Notes on Camp”. If camp really is “failed seriousness”, as she suggested, just how successful is Sontag’s seriousness in an age like ours where seriousness itself is judged to have failed? Her impressive, swan-like prose always inclines me at least to wonder how much furious peddling is going on beneath the water line. This is why the naked boast of Serious Susan’s street-brawling 1990s nemesis, Camille Paglia, after the publication of Sexual Personae, was so funny. “I’ve been chasing that bitch for years,” she crowed, “and now I’ve finally overtaken her!”

But, just like the ‘vulgar’ Paglia, Sontag made her reputation in part by lending cultural capital to things which were not at the time considered worth it, such as camp, cinema and Roland Barthes, in her now classic 1966 collection Against Interpretation. In fact, it was Sontag’s interest in that silly Frenchy which arguably set her up, giving her the edge on her (long forgotten) rivals. She was one of the main conduits by which Barthes’s obsession with taking superficiality seriously reached Anglo academe and became intensely fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, and in many ways prepared the way for the post-modernism and irony which is such anathema to Sontag today.

As Oscar Wilde once put it: “A moralist is someone who lectures on the vices of which he has grown bored.” In a preface to a new edition of Against Interpretation, included here, she makes a moving public confession: “What I didn’t understand… was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete.”

True, but perhaps it’s also the case that 30 years on the frontline of culture has moved to other, less Sontagian regions.

But old and new cultural capital always find a need for one another. It is well known that Sontag is in a relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the famous photographer. The famous celebrity photographer. Despite no official acknowledgement by the couple, their union is splashed across the broadsheets as a “glamorous” affair. Serious Susan, whether she wants to be or not, is a celebrity involved in a celebrity marriage. No wonder she doesn’t want to talk about it.

All this can’t help but lend a special resonance to “Certain Mapplethorpes”, one of the most interesting and personal essays in this collection. Explaining why she hates being photographed, she writes: “The photograph comes as a kind of reproof to the grandiosity of consciousness. Oh. So there `I’ am.”

After all, aren’t girlfriends an affront to the grandiosity of consciousness too?

Copyright Mark Simpson 2011

Joe The Lion: Interview With Yuri Foreman

Photographed by Alisdair McLellan

By Mark Simpson (Arena Hommes Plus, Winter-Spring 2011)

‘A few months ago there was a British boxing team training at my gym,’ recalls Yuri Foreman, in his charming, easy-going Russian accent.  ‘I saw the young kids, 12, 13, and, well, they looked just like Russians.  They all looked very tough, y’know. Tough faces.  Wiry bodies.  They walk around in the winter in t-shirts!’

They’re hard, I say.

‘Yeah, very hard.  They had hard accents too!’

Ah, they must have been Northern.  You on the other hand are a very pretty looking Russian.  And I don’t mean that as an insult.

‘Haha!  Believe me, I’m taking it as a compliment!’

You get the feeling that some boys have taken up boxing because they want their face made a bit uglier, if you know what I mean.

‘Yes, I do.’

You managed to keep your face pretty, Yuri.

‘Yes, they say in boxing you need to be careful of boxers with pretty faces because it means they’ve got good defences. They know how to fight.’

YURI Foreman, the Lion of Zion, the Jewish-Russian Israeli who boxes with a Star of David on his shorts, certainly knows how to fight.  How to stand his ground and come first in a world that sometimes seems to want you to come last.  The first Jewish WBA champion in 30 years and the first Israeli ever to win a world title (the Israeli VP recently called him up on his cell phone to tell him how proud Israel was of him).  The first to box in Yankee Stadium since Muhammad Ali took on Ken Norton in 1976.  And in a couple of years time when he finishes his studies of the Talmud and Jewish mysticism – which he takes in the morning, before he goes to Gleason’s gym, Brooklyn, in the afternoon to spar and pummel – he will also be the world’s first professional boxing rabbi.

Some find all this a bit difficult to swallow.  The stereotype of Jews as rather more intellectual than physical is a popular one. On his chat show recently an incredulous Jimmy Kimmel demanded of Yuri: ‘I wanna see some proof that you’re Jewish!’ ‘After…,’ Yuri parried, without missing a beat, to loud audience laughter.  Yuri is fast on his feet.

Just like Muhammad Ali – a fast-talker and even faster mover who used to brag about having a pretty face and how he was gonna keep it that way.  Ali was one of Yuri’s boxing heroes.  ‘I watched  lot of his boxing tapes.  He was a pioneer.  He was a new kind of boxer. Y’know, when I was a kid doing shadow boxing I was always trying to kind of imitate him in some kind of way.  A heavyweight staying on his toes for 15 rounds.  Amazing.  Mike Tyson was also a huge hero of mine.  Marvin Marvellous Hadler, Ray Leonard.  And Rocky Balboa, of course!’

Mike Tyson liked to trash talk – like David Haye the British heavyweight champion who recently got into trouble for saying his upcoming fight against Audley Harrison was going to be “as one-sided as a gang rape”.  Has the boxing rabbi ever trash-talked?

‘No, never!  I don’t believe in trash talk,’ Yuri asserts, passionately.  ‘Boxing is a very physical sport but it’s also a mind game.  You have to have a very strong mental and spiritual edge.  Sometimes boxers trash talk because they want to impress the audience, and sometimes they do it because they need to pump themselves up. They might be a bit vulnerable there – not so strong.  Listen, you can talk all you want but at the end of the day you have to use not your mouth but your fists and brain.  Trash talk is for the playground.’

Perhaps this is why his namesake the legendary George Foreman (‘Yuri’ means ‘George’ in Russian), who himself has found God (it happens more than you might think to ex-boxers), approves of Yuri. ‘Everyone tells me that Yuri is just the best man you could ever meet.  You don’t hear that about boxers today.  Everybody wants to imitate Mike Tyson.  But this Yuri Foreman seems to carry the baggage of decency, and I like that about him.’

In fact, while it’s just about possible to beat Yuri in the ring – he lost his WBA title to Miguel Cotto this June at that Yankee Stadium fight after an old knee injury flared up – it’s utterly impossible to dislike him.

***

Yuri Foreman was born August 5, 1980, in Gomel, second largest city in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, and the hometown of dimple-chinned Jewish action hero Kirk Douglas’ parents.  Just 170 miles south from the birthplace of another heroic Yuri whom Mr Foreman strikes me, only slightly fancifully, as facially resembling: Yuri Gagarin.  And barely 50 miles north of Chernobyl which exploded when Yuri was just seven years old, forcing his evacuation to Estonia for three months. So in a sense Yuri was born between the technological highs and lows of the Soviet Union.  Which collapsed just a month after his family left for Israel in 1991.  ‘It couldn’t live without us!’ he quips.

Yuri took up boxing when he was seven.  He had started the sport programme all children had to undertake in the USSR, choosing swimming – but was being bullied by older kids and came home with bruises on his face.  His mother wasn’t impressed and took him to a boxing gym.  ‘She thought, “Oh, he will just go to boxing for a while and learn enough to see off the bullies,” but it didn’t work out that way of course.  I ended up dropping the swimming and took up boxing instead.’  But not before running into one of his Pool Bullies and settling the score, just like in the movies.

Yuri was the youngest in the group of young boxers in Gomel and keen to impress his trainer.  ‘I was quite proud when he used me as an example to the older kids – “See how Yuri is hitting the bag non-stop!”  In addition to loving the atmosphere – and smell – of the boxing gym, Yuri credits his hero-worship of his trainer with inspiring his love of boxing.  ‘He had a very strong personality, was very funny, very strict and very muscly.  I didn’t want to let him down. It’s funny because the other day I was reading an interview with him in a newspaper from Belarus, and he told a story I remembered very well.  I had my first fight when I was 7 1/2 and I lost the fight.  I was in locker room, crying because I was ashamed.  He came and comforted me and told me, “You know what?  You’re going to be a professional world champion one day.”  I was like ‘Wow!’  Again, just like in the movies: Yuri’s life is the kind story of struggle that Hollywood used to love telling.

On arrival in Israel Yuri and the other Russian migrants were greeted at the airport by Israelis with wedges of fresh oranges: ‘I never tasted anything so sweet and delicious before.  I thought we had arrived in paradise.’  But pretty soon he realised that Israel wasn’t paradise – at least, not for Russian immigrants in Haifa in the 1990s. School was entirely in Hebrew, and he wasn’t welcome.  ‘I had a lot of fights in school.  I wasn’t accepted.  There was always a gulf between native Israelis and Russian immigrants. At 15-16 I felt they hated me and I wanted to return the favour, y’know?’

His family’s new life was tough.  His father got a job cleaning offices which Yuri would help him with after school.  In the Summer Yuri worked on construction sites with Arabs, seven days a week. There was no boxing gym in Haifa, the third largest city in Israel.  But in a nearby Arab village there was.  Young Yuri decided to train there.  The Arabs weren’t very welcoming either, to begin with.  ‘They set up a sparring match for me with one of their boxers.  In the beginning they try to kill you, then they see that you can actually box and defend yourself and so they accepted me.  It’s like that in lots of situations in life – they don’t like you to begin with, you’re not welcome, but then they see you can fight and they accept you.’

Yuri had a glittering amateur boxing career in Israel, winning national champion three times.  ‘I could have just stayed there and been four or five or six times Israeli champion, but that’s pretty much it. Basically I was stuck with the question, “What do I want to do in my life?” What I wanted was to pursue my dreams, my career.  I wanted to be a boxer.  And New York is home of boxing.  I made a decision.  I remember my Dad came home from work and I told him “Dad, I want to move to New York and try my best over there.  He was silent for five seconds and then he said, “OK”.  And that was it.  He bought me my ticket.’

There were no wedges of fresh orange at JFK.  Life was even harder in New York.  ‘I had always wanted to go to America, and always had big, big idea that when I got there life, for some reason, was not going to be that difficult.  Not so difficult as being an immigrant in Israel.  But it was MORE difficult, because I didn’t have my family or friends.  It was very tough.  I had to find a job right away to support myself and found job in Lower Manhattan’s Garment District, pushing clothes racks. Working for my American Dream.’  Yuri worked from 9-6 and then ‘trying really hard not to forget the reason I actually came to the US’ he would force himself to go training at Gleason’s.

There’s a sign on the wall of that gym quoting Virgil: ‘Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.’  Yuri put up his hands. And loved it.  ‘It was like a lot of adrenaline!  It was completely different experience for me.  In Israel the boxing gyms are very small, with one ring, or no ring and just a few bits and pieces of equipment.  Gleason’s has four rings, jump ropes, heavy bags, speed bags.  I felt like “I’m in the right place now.”  The fact this was the gym they used in Rocky made it all the more exciting for Yuri, who’d named his childhood dog, a Caucasian shepherd, after Sylvester Stallone’s dogged, everyman boxer who just wont quit.

Gleason’s was very well equipped indeed: Yuri met his wife there, Leyla Leidecker a former model from Hungary, and also a featherweight amateur boxer.  ‘It’s very much a modern kind of place where you meet your soul-mate,’ he laughs.  ‘If you can handle her in the ring you might get along!’ Their first date was in Gleason’s, attending a fight.  ‘She’s a very smart girl as well as very beautiful and I’m trying to catch up with her.’  It was Leyla who introduced him to Rabbi Dovber Pinson, who is training Yuri to be a Rabbi.  Like his hero Ali, Yuri found his identity through a religious awakening in adulthood.

‘In Israel I stayed away from religion, like my parents who are secular,’ he explains.  ‘I didn’t see the point of eating kosher or not using electricity on the Sabbath.’  It was only in the US, cut off from his family and struggling to survive that he started to take an interest in Judaism.  ‘I was so physically and emotionally drained that I needed a little bit of spiritual backbone.  We could barely afford the rent, we didn’t have much money for food – sometimes in the Summer we would go through winter clothes hoping to find some change in pocket to buy lunch.’

In search of spiritual succour they attended a lecture by the Kabbalist rabbi Pinson.  ‘He was explaining that life was like two boxers in the ring sometimes life hits you so hard that you find yourself lying on your back looking at the lights.  He said that boxers always find a way to get back on their feet and continue fighting.  He didn’t know I was a boxer so I was quite impressed.  He was young too.  After a while he invited us for a Sabbath dinner.  That was cool because I’d never been invited to a Sabbath dinner in Russia or Israel.  And here you come to the United States and someone invites you to explore Judaism!’  Yuri’s religious fervour isn’t perhaps so odd in a boxer.  After all, ‘religion’ means ‘discipline’ and boxing is nothing if not a disciplined sport that requires, during training, an almost monastic separation from the world.

Yuri is not planning to be a rabbi in a synagogue when he is ordained. ‘I’d like to work with young people. Russian kids in Israel are very far from Judaism.  Judaism can help on many levels when you’re growing up, it gives you strength.’

So rabbis can be heroes too?

‘Absolutely.  As human beings we are both physical beings and spiritual beings.  A rabbi is a spiritual teacher but he should also use his hands – be really physical, because we are living in the physical world.’

As I wind up the interview Yuri enquires earnestly after Ricky Hatton, who has been pictured in the scandal sheets recently taking cocaine and who has just gone into rehab.  Being a cynical journalist I suggest he probably went into rehab because his publicist told him to.  But Yuri nobly refuses to be contaminated by my cynicism.  ‘I really like Ricky,’ he says.  ‘He’s a great fighter but very down-to-earth.  A People’s Champ.  I’d like to think he feels he’s let down his fans and he’d better clean up his act because a lot of kids consider him their hero.’

‘Plus,’ Yuri adds, laughing, ‘I bet he wears a t-shirt in the winter!’

Yuri Foreman may not wear a t-shirt in winter, but he’s plenty hard enough. Hard enough to be soft.  And I doubt he’ll ever let his fans down with bad habits. An unusual kind of boxer – and an even rarer kind of hero.  The real kind.

© Mark Simpson 2010

20 ‘Stella’ Years of Dolce & Gabbana For Men

by Mark Simpson, Arena Hommes Plus (Winter-Spring, 2010)

America’s hottest new Hollywood stars – who naturally enough in this post-Hollywood era, don’t actually work in Hollywood but reality TV – were recently honoured with a profile in Interview magazine. The Italian-American ‘Guidos’ from MTV mega-hit ‘Jersey Shore’, who have conquered America with their brazenness and their Gym Tan Laundry routine, were styled in Dolce & Gabbana. Suddenly, they looked as if they had come home. After all, these twenty-something earthy but flamboyant, self-assured but needy young men are, aesthetically, emotionally, the bastard offspring of Dolce & Gabbana.

The Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana got together over two decades ago to make beautiful, emotional clothes for men – but ended up, almost as an afterthought, siring a generation. Such has been the potency of Dolce & Gabbana’s worldview they have more or less patented the aestheticized modern male and his yearning desire to be desired. Their dreamy but virile vision of the male has become the dominant one in our mediated world. Even if Dolce & Gabbana man sometimes likes to be underneath.

But who or what is Dolce & Gabbana man? In ‘20 Years of Dolce & Gabbana’ a bumper book of vintage glossiness cataloguing the growth of the brand, the French actress Fanny Ardant describes him as ‘arrogant, with irony,’ which sounds very Jersey Shore. Victoria Beckham describes him as: ‘not afraid to be in tune with his feminine side and the sexual side of his persona…’ adding, ‘he has a strong sense of European fashion and has an extravagant, flamboyant sense of personal style.’ I think we know who she has in mind.

Aside from Becks (some, er, seminal 2002 images of him in half-undone jeans are included here) who is the quintessential Dolce & Gabbana man? ‘Cesare Borgia’, says Ardant, perhaps being slightly ironic herself. ‘My son Rocco,’ asserts Madonna, who probably isn’t. For my part I’d be tempted to name Cristiano Ronaldo, whose carefree personal style seems totally Dolce, even when he’s advertising Armani.

Actress Scarlett Johansson hits the bullseye when she identifies him as: ‘Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire’. Yes! That white vest! That brooding brow! That pouting face on a Sicilian stevedore’s body! Truly “STEL-LA!”, young Brando was in many ways the first Hollywood male pin-up, arrogantly and flirtatiously inviting our gaze in a way that hadn’t really been seen before in America, even if it was nothing unusual on the streets of Syracuse, Sicily.

Brando doesn’t appear in the many film stills scattered through this book as examples of the inspiring lights of the brand, instead we have the pin-ups of Italian neo realist cinema such as Massimo Giretti and Renato Salvatore and of course, the sublimely refined Marcello Mastroanni. But Marlon and his vest – and even in his middle-aged Godfather role – are evoked by many of the fashion shoot images here.

As Tim Blanks puts it in his introduction: ‘There’s some irony in the fact that it was actually Hollywood which distilled Italy’s international image to handful of core ingredients that were really Sicilian in essence – the machismo, the mama, the Mafia, of course, and, all the time, bright sunlight, dark shadows, and overwrought emotion.’ Dolce & Gabbana were in effect an Italian take on Hollywood’s take on Italy. But all the more poignant for that.

Dolce & Gabbana are less of a fashion brand, more a studio system that produces pin-up-ness in the form of clothes. Or, as they like to put it themselves, ‘dream doctors’. The famously iconic pictures included here of a smouldering young Matt Dillon, and Keanu Reeves in his vealish prime, bring out and something Sicilian in them that Hollywood itself has long since forgotten how to do.

That Lady Gaga backlash is so tired already


The Gaga backlash, which recently found itself a leader in Camille Paglia, was inevitable. It’s also misguided, argues Mark Simpson

(Out Magazine, Sept 24 2010)

My bitch is better than your bitch! And she wore that dress before yours did! My bitch would kick your bitch’s ass!

This is the kind of thing the older generation — my generation — has begun to say ever more loudly about the younger generation’s first bona fide superstar, Lady Gaga. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Grace Jones, and—crossing ourselves and throwing salt over our shoulders—Madonna all did it years before Gaga, and so much better.

The world’s most famous gay Madonna fan, Camille Paglia, was recently given four pages in the U.K.’s The Sunday Times Magazine to say this, “demolishing” Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, as an “asexual, confected copycat who has seduced the Internet generation.” Paglia is a worthy critic indeed, and her mocking epithet “the diva of déjà vu” is bound to stick like chewing gum rubbed in a hated schoolgirl’s hair. But after reading her impassioned assault — which, for all its fascinating history of female Hollywood stars, seemed to boil down to “she’s not Madonna, and I don’t fancy holding her meat purse” — I found myself liking Lady Gaga more rather than less.

Paglia’s essay was further proof of Gaga’s importance. As I like to say to gay friends of a certain age who rail almost daily against Gaga on Facebook, for someone so shallow, so talentless, and so derivative she certainly seems to hold your attention. The passionate hatred Gaga provokes is all part of her remarkable potency. When was the last time pop music mattered? When was the last time you cared? Until Lady Gaga came along, just a couple years ago, pop seemed thoroughly pooped. Some nice tunes and haircuts here and there and some really excellent financial institution ad soundtracks, but really, who thought pop could ever trouble us again as a total art form?

Gaga has single-handedly resurrected pop. Or at least she’s made it seem like it’s alive. Maybe it’s a kind of galvanic motion — those pop promos sometimes look like Helmut Newton zombie flicks — but boy, this is shocking fun. And yes, her persona is something of a pint-size Bride of Frankenstein, assembled out of Photoshopped dead star body parts. But isn’t everyone nowadays?

Of course she’s not David Bowie or Madonna. It’s not 1972 or 1984. Instead, we’re a decade into a new, blank, digital century when creativity is curation. The pop past weighs heavily on our shoulders — but Gaga wears it so lightly and sprightly on her tiny frame it’s inspiring. In the flickering, shape-shifting shape of Lady Gaga, tired old postmodernism never looked so frisky. And it turns out to be really good on the dance floor. The 21st century didn’t really get going, or have a decent soundtrack, until Ms. Germanotta came along with her Gagacious beats.

But the older generation’s resentful backlash against Lady Gaga — how dare the kids think they have a proper star to speak for them! — is well and truly underway. Paglia’s piece was well-timed and has already prompted a host of copycat columns around the world complaining about Gaga the tiresome copycat. It had to happen, of course. She is now so huge as to be completely unrivaled in pop cultural terms — the most famous woman on the planet: too big and tasty a target for the press not to chew up.

That mesmerizing meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards — where she picked up eight trophies, including Video of the Year for “Bad Romance” — displayed a spooky kind of prescience. The inevitable lip-smacking Gaga backlash seems almost to be a predetermined part of the Gaga plot. And to those who like to tut and roll their eyes over the meat dress and intone “It’s been done before, dear,” please remind me again which year it was that a female artist, let alone the biggest artist in the world, accepted an MTV award, or any music award, dressed as a rib-eye?

Gaga “wants to have it both ways,” complained Paglia in The Sunday Times, “to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal.” But isn’t that what really great pop — pop as a total art form — tries to do? Put images and concepts into contexts they’re not supposed to inhabit? Like the pop charts? Isn’t that what Madonna at her best was doing? Yes, it’s probably ultimately a doomed project, but if there’s anything that approaches avant-garde for the masses, it’s that meat dress at the MTV awards, or that jaw-dropping video for “Bad Romance,” complete with smoking skeleton and sparking bra.

In the indignant roll call of the artists Gaga has “ripped off,” one who is rarely mentioned is the Australian-born performance artist Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994 of AIDS-related illnesses. Bowery defied gender, and pretty much any category you care to mention, with his stunning, hilarious, and terrifying body-morphing outfits, sometimes fashioned out of his own (ample) flesh. Like Gaga, he had a very keen sense of humor about what it means to be human and set out to sabotage conceptions of “sexiness.” Famously, he once lay on a divan in a shop window in a London art gallery preening himself for a week.

Gaga, however, is reclining in the shop window of the world. Paglia’s accusation that Gaga is “asexual” spectacularly miss the point that Gaga is postsexual. She’s post–the now boringly compulsorily “sexy” world that Madonna helped usher in, bullwhip in hand, which is now as burned-out as that “Bad Romance” skeleton. Gaga isn’t asexual or even particularly androgynous — she’s transexy. She’s deliberately overexposing “sexiness,” making it as transparent as her skin sometimes seems to be. Instead of just rubbing herself up, she’s showing gender and sexuality up by taking them to grotesque extremes. Even if she sometimes looks like Dali doodling his ideal inflatable doll.

But I doubt any of this will persuade those of my generation who have decided to spoil the younger generation’s fun and let them know how ignorant they are. After all, that’s the only kind of fun we oldies have. Even if her detractors’ dreams came true and Lady Gaga was publicly burned at the stake in Central Park, they still wouldn’t be happy. “Oh, look at her!” they’d say, rolling their eyes. “She’s so tired! Joan of Arc did that in 1431. She had much better hips. And she did it in French!”

Copyright Mark Simpson 2010

Army Dreamers: A Backwards Salute to Recruitment Films


by Mark Simpson, The Guardian

As a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s I was raised to fight The Second World War all over again. Airfix models. Commando comics. Air tattoos in June. Watching The Battle of Britain and The Longest Day on telly with my dad, just so I’d know what to do if I ever found myself pinned down on a Normandy beach or with an Me 109E on my tail.

All of which made me easy prey to an RAF recruiting film about a buccaneer squadron training sortie from Gibraltar, set to a Vangelis soundtrack. I promptly signed up to the air cadets and spent Tuesday afternoons and a week or two in the summer hols wearing itchy shirts and a Frank Spencer-style beret, learning how to march without falling over. I loved it, and would probably have signed up for the real thing if it hadn’t been for a sixth-form flirtation with Quakerism.

Alas, that old recruiting film isn’t included in They Stand Ready, a new collection of Central Office of Information (COI) armed forces recruitment and propaganda shorts made between 1946 and 1985, released by the BFI. But several similar ones are, including Tornado (1985), about a simulated attack on a Warsaw Pact surface-to-air missile site, and HMS Sheffield (1975), about life onboard a Royal Navy frigate (that was later hit by an Exocet during the Falklands war with the loss of 30 lives).

With their promise of escape from humdrum life, opportunities for new mates, good times, foreign travel and playing with really expensive toys – though strangely silent on the possible physical cost – these films offer a glimpse into the listless, regimented world that was mid-to-late 20th-century civilian Britain, waiting impatiently for Xboxes, EasyJet, the internet and proper drugs to turn up.

Perhaps it’s because prime minister David Cameron is around the same age as me – or possibly because the armed forces, or at least the army, are still largely run by lah-de-dah Ruperts like him – that he seems so nostalgic for this vanished old world. Cameron recently vowed to make the forces “front and centre of national life” and “revered” again, in a speech to UK personnel in Afghanistan.

Not that increased prominence is a guarantee of increased reverence, however. A short celebrating national service, They Stand Ready (1955), which dates from a year before the Suez debacle punctured the UK’s global pretensions, recalls the last time that the armed forces really were front and centre of national life. Yet conscription proved to be highly unpopular – both with most of those who had to do it and those who had to find something to do with them.

Once the last national servicemen left the ranks in 1963, army life could then be sold as something glamorous and exciting instead of an onerous black-and-white duty. This is exactly what Ten Feet Tall (1963), a rock’n’roll-soundtracked recruiting film does in glorious Technicolor. It showcases a matinee-idol young Scottish squaddie’s ruddy complexion, perfect white teeth, and the (now ominously) nicotine-stained fingers of the army careers officer.

• The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready, a BFI DVD release, available from July 2010

 

The Definitive Vietnam War Novel? Or Cartoon War Porn?

Today’s FT carries a review by yours truly of Karl Marlantes’ controversial novel Matterhorn.

Reasons to Be Cheerful, presented by Jake Arnott

My good friend the novelist Jake Arnott presents next Saturday’s instalment of BBC Radio Four’s antidote to grumpiness series ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’.  He looks at the astonishing changes in attitudes towards sexuality and masculinity in the past few decades, arguing they offer men much greater freedom of choice and expression than in the past.

Because he’s a good friend and because he’s a very generous and charitable chap he invited me to contribute.  I tried my best to be grumpy, but Jake is so charming I couldn’t quite keep it up.  I think I may even have ended up talking about how much I liked Soho.

The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  — because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

The Geeks Inherit the Earth

Mark Simpson goes over to the Dark Side at Comic-Con

(Out magazine, September 2009 – uncut version)

‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,’ confides Batty, the beserker droid played by Rutger Hauer at the climax of the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. ‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate…’.

That’s nothing. I’ve seen over 125,000 nerds in full flight, nostrils flared with the scent of freebies, limited issue action figures and the possibility of glimpsing Gandalf on the other side of a hall the size of the Death Star’s flight deck.

Every fibre of my body is screaming: RUN! RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!! But I can’t move. An inch. I’m completely surrounded. Who would have thought nerds were such pack animals? The San Diego Convention Centre, all 615,701 square feet of it, is full to bursting point with people who have left their dank, toy-stuffed bedrooms to don their favourite costumes, circulate the hundreds of stands and booths,  countless talks, lectures, panels, fill their ‘swag bags’ with promotional pap – and bash them into me.

Comic-Con is a mindbogglingly huge yearly celebration of pop culture that began forty years ago as a simple swap-meet between geeks with boxes of surplus comic books. Today it includes pretty much every genre of pop culture from video games to card games, anime to fantasy novels and is a favourite stomping ground for Hollywood, featuring promotional appearances by big Hollywood names such as Robert Downey Jr, Johnny Depp, James Cameron and Peter Jackson promoting films like Iron Man 2, Avatar, District 9, G.I. Joe,  The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Alice in Wonderland.

Comic-Con has become the Godzilla of pop culture and has swallowed Hollywood whole – though some old-timers worry that Hollywood and Corporate America has swallowed Comic-Con.

The crowd is moving, and taking me with it.  Towards some escalators that loom up ominously ahead like an unexpected waterfall. ‘STEP THIS WAY!  YOU LOOK AWFULLY TIRED! – STEP THIS WAY! – TRY TO SMILE!!’ bawls a middle-aged escalator supervisor lady to the crowd. But I think she means me. At the bottom of the escalators I pass a booth selling ‘Star Trek Cologne’: ‘Tiberius’, ‘Khan’ and ‘Red Shirt – Because tomorrow may never come.’ A young man dressed as a Vulcan asks the seller ‘Why no Spock fragrance? After Zachary Quinto played him in the new movie he’s the hottest of the lot!’. Pause. ‘Or so my girlfriend tells me,’ he adds quickly.

Swept along by the crowd again towards the Lego stand in the middle of the main hall I bump into Michael and Cesar, Comic-Con veterans in their early thirties doing what a lot of people spend a lot of time doing here: waiting in line. I ask if I can hang with them – and escape the crowd – and very kindly they agree. But what are they lining up for? ‘Limited edition toys and books, explains Michael. ‘You line up for a lottery ticket, which then gives you the chance to line up again to buy a toy.’

‘That doesn’t sound much fun’, I say.

‘Hah! But these are limited edition Star Wars toys!’

‘Guys, I’m the sort of person who gets a rush out of throwing things away. The idea of collecting things fills me with dread. Think of the dusting!

‘Oh, we like to hoard!’ says Michael. ‘I’ve got a garage FULL of SW figures! Over 3000! And hundreds of vehicles!’

‘Do you actually play with the toys?’

‘No,’ says Cesar, ‘I don’t take them out of the box. It decreases the re-sale value’. Cesar is trading to help pay for medical school. Michael for his part always unpacks them: ‘I don’t sell them and I like to play with them a bit before I put them into storage.’

Both from San Diego, Michael is gay and works as an administrative nurse, while Cesar is straight, married father of two, and is studying to be a doctor. Michael is very friendly and talks very fast; Cesar, a shy Mexican American chap, is quieter but has twinkly dark eyes that seem to say a lot. His backpack is completely covered with cute Star Wars badges like ‘Star Wars Republic Commando’, ‘Rogue Squadron’, ‘Revenge of the Jedi’.

How did Michael get involved in the nerd lifestyle? ‘My dad was in the military and a strict disciplinarian. We weren’t very close to him. He bought us off with toys, I suppose.’ So George Lucas was your adoptive father? ‘Yes, you could say that. I had the entire collection when I was a kid. Sold them when I was a teenager because I wanted to buy a car. But then I regretted it later and bought them back.’ So when you became a man you put away childish things – and then got them out again? ‘Yeah,’ laughs Michael, ‘Adulthood wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.’ ‘You can say that again,’ says Cesar, who is currently in the process of getting a divorce.

This is probably part of the reason why nerd culture is becoming much more mainstream – if not actually dominant. Nerdism is crossing over and coming out. After all, in a consumerist, single-mom society most boys are being fathered by PlayStation or Nike. ‘Do you like Star Wars?  LOTR?, asked a promotional flyer I was handed as I lined up to enter the Convention Centre. ‘How about Lost?  Harry Potter? Big monsters, talking robots and sexy aliens?’ Well, doesn’t that cover pretty much everyone these days?  Throw in computer games, which are an increasingly important part of Comic-Con (and a bigger industry than Hollywood, even catching up with porn), the nerdish ‘rejects’ of yesteryear are becoming the norm.

Nor is it just a boy thing any more: the arrival at Comic-Con of legions of screaming teen girls for the ‘Twilight’ event prompted some Comic-Con traditionalists to walk around with placards declaring: ‘TWILIGHT RUINED COMIC-CON’.

But what is the deal with the Star Wars figures?  What is so compelling about them for a grown man? ‘They remind me of how I felt watching the film,’ explains Michael.  And what is that feeling? ‘Oh, TOTAL EXCITEMENT!’  Love? ‘Yeah, maybe!’ ‘I think of them like a diary,’ explains Cesar. ‘Or like the way that smells or tastes can remind you of memories.’ Cesar’s family background is very similar to Michael’s. ‘My dad ran a restaurant and worked very long hours. He wasn’t really around. He bought us off with toys.’

It seems toys can buy you love. Cesar and Michael met on the way to the 3rd Star Wars Convention in Indianapolis seven years ago. ‘He was on the same flight as me with his girlfriend,’ recounts Michael. ‘We were stuck on the fucking tarmac for two hours with no air conditioning  MISERABLE. We got to chatting – we were inseparable from that moment on.  In 2008 Cesar stood in my wedding party. He is truly one of my best friends’ says Michael.  Cesar chest swells visibly at this. ‘We go to all the conventions together and are inseparable.’

I ask Larry, Michael’s husband, if he feels jealous of Cesar at all? ‘Oh, no!’ laughs Larry. ‘I’m just glad I don’t have to go to these fucking circuses with Michael!’ Larry shares Michael’s love of Star Wars and 80s Brit band Duran Duran, but not Comic-Con: ‘I’m a proper nerd – I don’t do crowds’. Michael married Larry before same-sex marriage was banned again in California in November last year. Larry, an office manager in his early thirties, has an easy-going demeanour and a wry sense of humour.

SW was the entry drug again: Larry attended the first showing when he was just five years old.  Dad was a USMC Vietnam vet working as an alarm installer who wasn’t easy to get close to.  ‘You didn’t know who was going to walk in the door – the coolest dad in the world or the asshole. He had us help him build a 25ft model of the USS Hornet in our garage – with working elevators. And then he tore that apart and we built a full size Apollo capsule. And then an F-14 cockpit – in which all the electrics worked.’

He sounds a bit manic-depressive, I suggest. ‘He wasn’t very happy with his job. Either way, I ended up keeping my distance from him and became more interested in toys.’ Like Michael he sold his SW collection to buy a car when he thought he’d grown up – but later changed his mind and started buying them back. ‘Being an adult, whatever that is these days, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As my father kinda demonstrated.’

Taking a breather outside the convention hall with Michael and Cesar, while a staged fight is going on involving men sweating in the June sun thwacking each other noisily with swords, I ask if Comic-Con a kind of nerd Pride. ‘Yeah, I guess it is in a way,’ agrees Michael. ‘We used to be fearful of those words.  But now we tend to use them of one another. Kind of like gay people with ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. And like gay people we don’t like it so much when others use them.’

‘I think things are also changing so that you can see a few jocks in their muscle Ts coming to this event now, with their girlfriends.’ Before I can ask him where?? Michael points to the sword-thwackers. ‘I mean, I look at a bunch of guys beating the shit out of each other in plastic armour and think it’s crazy, but is it really so different, or more crazy than collecting action figures?’ Geekiness is in the eye of the beholder.

Touched by Michael and Cesar’s friendship and fired up by their enthusiasm I join them in queuing up for a couple of hours outdoors to see the ‘Star Wars Spectacular. Sweating and blinded by the Southern California sun we’re finally herded into a vast darkened, frigid auditorium where, projected onto a vast video screen Anthony Daniels, AKA C-3PO, is on stage sucking George Lucas’ cock. Metaphorically, of course. Even camper in the flesh than in his famously courtesy droid costume, pursing his lips and flapping his hands about, Mr Daniels, is enthusing in a very scripted fashion about the SW Music Tour (basically: you watch clips from Star Wars while a live orchestra plays the soundtrack). ‘The size of it!’ he exclaims. ‘I didn’t fully realise how big it was until I saw the video of it afterwards!’

Daniels turns out to be the highlight of the ‘Spectacular’: he’s followed by various fat, bearded no-neck George Lucas lookalikes from Lucasfilm’s marketing department, droning on about forthcoming SW computer games, introduced by a couple of lamely ad-libbing male and female local TV presenters in Luke and Leia outfits. Hype about hype isn’t always terribly interesting. Even for die-hard fans.

First Michael and then Cesar turn to me half way through and say: ‘This sucks. Let’s go.’ And we do. I really hope it wasn’t my Dark Side presence that brought them down.

***

Adam May is not attending Comic-Con this year. ‘I’ve only been to Comic-Con once,’ he tells me on the line from his home in Atlanta.  ‘I have a panic attack just looking at photos!  It’s sensory overload for me.’ I hear you. ‘I manage to make it to Dragon Con here in Atlanta quite often.  And of course the Star Wars Celebration Events.’ Of course. Adam, 33, a graphic artist who describes himself as ‘Atlanta’s answer to the wrong question’ has the distinction of being the first openly gay Star Wars action figure. Many are called; few are chosen.

referencephotostormysevenspire

Adam’s plastic obsession began the first time he saw Princess Leia. ‘Carrie Fisher with those buns on her head – she really was my first gay experience. Star Wars helped Adam grow up, in a manner of speaking: he had a speech impediment as a child, and by repeating Luke Skywalker’s lines over and over he help himself ‘talk it out’. He also  remembers that when his mother took him to see a child shrink she’d buy him a figure. ‘I was a latch-key kid. An “oops” that my parents didn’t expect. We had an “account” at the little shop down the street, so I could get all of the comics and candy that I wanted. My folks never said a word about it.’

Contrary to my impression of Nerd World as somehow pre-sexual in a post-sexual world, it seems there are such things as superhero sex parties. ‘I’ve been along to a gay one as a voyeur’, confesses Adam.  ‘I’m not really into dressing up – or superheroes. My heroes are in music – like Morrissey and James Maker. The parties are not really out-and-out sex. Lots of frottage, and depending on the costume, there is kissing, licking – and whatever else you can do with your mouth. Some bondage and role-play: the Evil Joker tying up Boy Wonder, that kind of thing.’

Other gays mostly recoil in horror though when they find out Adam’s plastic habit. ‘They typically assume I’m some strange man-child. I joke that the 80s jingle: “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a toys R Us kid!” wasn’t just a jingle. It was an oath!’

‘I know many SW collectors, straight and gay, who refer to their spouses as SW widows. My partner thinks a smattering are cool – he has a pristine Maximus Prime toy – though most are tedious to him. But I’ve reach the point where I don’t care what anyone thinks about my toy fetish. That said, I do try to keep my gay friends away from the Three Storey Toy Box. I have a collection of about 10,000 action figures –  with all of the accoutrements that go with them (space ships, play sets, light-sabres). The stairwell in my house has a wall that is 2 1/2 stories of shelving, acrylic risers and every SW figure that Hasbro made.’

Including the one they made of Adam himself after he won a competition to have a SW action figure based on him.  He chose the name Stormy Sevenspire – an anagram for Steven P. Morrissey. ‘I had hired a make-up artist to paint me up as I wanted to be in action figure likeness. I made sure the hair was just the right kind of quiff.’

Adam knows this kind of thing can make some people dangerously envious, but isn’t sure who is most likely to ‘shank’ him: hardcore Morrissey fans or Star Wars obsessives. Watch your back, dude.

***

‘Please. Again.  No flash photography,’ announces the MC.  ‘This is an amateur contest.  So, if we want to encourage people to dress up in off-balance outfits they can’t see properly out of for us to laugh at for nothing – and I think we do – it’s probably not a good idea to kill them.’

It’s the final night of Comic-Con and I’m attending the famous Masquerade Ball with my new best friends Michael and Cesar, in which those not fortunate enough to have been turned into an action figure by George Lucas have to do it themselves. With papier mache and sticky-backed plastic.

So someone dressed as an AT-ST Walker stalks the stage, followed a little later by someone dressed as Luke Skywalker singing ‘Star Wars Cantina’ to the tune of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’.  But my own personal favourite is She-Woman confronting Skeletor with a full backing troupe and singing Britney Spears’ ‘Womanizer’ at him while wagging her finger in time to the music.

‘Yes, I’m sure he learned something from that,’ comments the MC drily.

Skeletor may not have done, but I certainly did. By way of confession: I had been a little miffed that San Diego airport on my way to Comic-Con: the bearish airport security officer looked me up and down, smiled and asked: ‘Here for Comic-Con?’ But I needn’t have worried. I’m not a nerd. And that’s not just the voice of denial.

Truth is: I’m not nearly man enough to be a nerd.

Adam May’s Star Wars blog

Fight Club: How Gay is MMA?

Mark Simpson attends an epic UFC event and finds himself turned on to the charms of ‘gay porn for straight men’

(Originally appeared in Out magazine, June 2008)

IMAGINE THE SPACE SHUTTLE taking off with a really fat customized exhaust pipe. Or Visigoths sacking Ancient Rome with kicking bass tubes fitted to their 4-by-4s. Or 20,000 supercharged male orgasms. Simultaneously. And you have some idea what it sounds and feels like in Montreal’s famous Bell Centre tonight for Ultimate Fighting Championship 83, as a spunky young carrot redhead in shorts pins an auburn lad on his back with his heels somewhere around his ears.

I think the technical term for this is a “full mount.” Or maybe it’s “ground and pound.”

Never Back DownAs the chiselled and blond bad guy with the low-slung shorts (Cam Gigandet) in the recent mixed martial arts (MMA) exploitation flick Never Back Down says leeringly to the doe-eyed brunet boxer  good guy (Sean Faris) new to MMA, the good news is that in this sport you can choke, kick, punch, pin, and throttle. “The bad news is that it’s gotta end with you looking like a bitch in front of everybody.”

Perhaps it was bad news for him – and for the auburn lad in the ring tonight – but certainly not for the 22,000-strong overwhelmingly young-male audience for the biggest-ever UFC event.

Over 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas, Brit boxer Joe “slapper” Calzaghe is tonight defeating light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins on points. In the long-established world of boxing, there is rumoured to be an ancient and secret tradition called the “perk,” or “perquisite” – by which the losing man may be required later to literally give up what he has lost symbolically. In other words, the fucked gets… really fucked.

I don’t know how much truth there is to the “perk,” though the breathless trash talk of modern-day boxers in the run-up to a fight – “I’m gonna make you my bitch/girlfriend/punk” – certainly doesn’t discredit it. But I’m fairly certain that the “perk” doesn’t exist in the “full-contact” brave new world of mixed martial arts (MMA), an omnivorous blend of boxing, freestyle wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, kick-boxing, karate, jujitsu, and Thai boxing that is rapidly replacing boring old traditional boxing, especially among young men, as the fighting sport. The perk isn’t needed. Because in MMA you get perked in the “ring” in front of everybody. On pay-per-view TV. The “perk” is the whole perking point, man. And UFC, by far the most successful purveyor of MMA fights for the cable TV voyeur, looks remarkably like gay porn for straight men: ultimate fuck-fighting.

ufc83_07_danzig_vs_bocek_001In the octagonal UFC cage set up over the Bell Centre ice hockey rink — octagonal perhaps because it better affords multiple viewing angles than a square boxing ring – Mac Danzig is still on his back; his sweaty, pumped, almost translucently white torso is flushed with the auburn heat that auburn skin produces when it is aroused. His panting, fetching head has been pushed up against the cage by redhead Marc Bocek’s energetic pounding, as if the cage were in fact a headboard. Bocek isn’t making love, however, or at least not the vanilla kind. He’s hammering the living daylights out of Danzig, stoking the crowd into ever-higher waves of frenzy. Although the Octagon is right in front of me, I’m watching all of this on one of the giant screens overhead: MMA is mostly a horizontal sport — one that requires multiple zoom lenses and a big TV to enjoy properly.

Bocek pauses for a moment to grab his partner/adversary by his hips, almost tenderly, and drag him backward while still kneeling between his legs, not wanting to break contact and negotiate that tricky “re-entry.” It isn’t, though, out of consideration for his chum’s cricked neck. He’s worried that Danzig will use the cage to get up off the canvas — and then get him in the “bitch” position. MMA is all about fighting for top. (Or maybe for extremely truculent bottom.)

bocekUnfortunately for Bocek, Danzig succeeds in breaking away anyway, jumps to his feet, and deftly, impersonally, brings up his knee and smashes it against Bocek’s left eyebrow, which provokes another roar of excitement from the crowd and opens up a very nasty laceration that spills hot blood everywhere, streaming into his eye, across his face, down his chin, and splatters across his lily-white chest — and all over his opponent. MMA is definitely not safe sex. The ref pauses the fight to examine Bocek’s eye. If the blood is preventing him from seeing, the fight will be declared in Danzig’s favor.

posterTurning to my beautifully produced glossy fight program, which includes full-page colour images of the topless young fighters arranged opposite one another and their vital statistics, I learn that Danzig is 5 foot 8 and 155 pounds, 28, and a Cleveland native. His feisty opponent, Bocek, from Woodbridge, Canada, is 26, and is also 5 foot 8 and 155 pounds. As someone who has a thing for redheads and short-asses, I’d say they are well matched.

The ref continues the match – and why not? Blood looks good on TV. There are only a few seconds left of the third and final round (UFC fights only go to a maximum three rounds at five minutes each — about the average length of a porn scene). Bocek, despite the turned tables and his pasting and what must be deathly tiredness, is still putting up an astonishing fight. Danzig scores a take-down almost immediately and moves, as they say in MMA, “directly to the mount.” Bocek “gives up his back” to try to save his ruined face from further punishment but is then caught in a “rear-naked choke” by Danzig’s powerful, fatally inviting arms. He “taps out” (submits) at 3 minutes, 48 seconds.

I don’t know about Bocek, but these were some of the longest 3 minutes, 48 seconds of my life. I’m aroused and inspired and exhausted and confused. For my money, Bocek won that fight – morally speaking. Which of course means that he lost very badly. His face is roadkill. He is really fucked. But he displayed that quality you hear people talk about reverently in MMA: heart.

Despite the gore, MMA is generally safer than boxing – there are fewer fatalities and brain-damage is less common. Because the fight is “full-contact,” the head doesn’t take all the violence. When it does, though, it’s pretty gruesome. Yet amid all the mayhem, there is a touching tenderness to MMA. Not because it looks to my twisted, queer eye like very rough sex — but because of that “heart” business. After a bout is over, most fighters hug each other in a pseudo-post-coital embrace that re-enacts the warlike hug earlier, only this time it’s a hug of warm brotherhood.

Another huge, manly Gallic roar. The arena’s giant screen is now tuned to the locker room; a rangy young blond skinhead fighter has peeled his shirt off, revealing a well-oiled fleshly fighting machine. The light behind him and his piercing blue eyes gazing into the camera, not to mention the low position of the locker-room cam, give him the cast of a demigod. It’s Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, the handsome, stylish 26-year-old local Montreal boy who tonight is hoping to seize back his UFC Welterweight belt from Matt “the Terror” Serra, 33, the no-nonsense Long Island master of Brazilian jujitsu who dispossessed him of it last year with what some people said was a lucky punch.

We’ve only been watching the hors d’oeuvre. All this blood has just been so much foreplay.

***

MacDanzigMarkBocek-1

“STOP LOOKING LADIES!” some funny guy in the audience shouts. It’s the weigh-in, a day earlier. Ed “Short Fuse” Herman, another 20-something boy-next-door red-headed fighter, from Vancouver, Wash., is naked on the stage under the spotlight, a towel held up by two lieutenants to shield his “short fuse.” Funnily enough, it’s mostly men rather than ladies doing the looking here in this packed auditorium. Though some are perhaps doing more looking than others: From where I’m seated at the side, I manage to catch a glimpse of Ed’s white butt as he bends over to slip off his briefs (a day later he will fight in shorts cheekily advertising ‘CONDOM DEPOT’ – across his butt).

Several guys have had to take their underpants off – to cheers. I can’t help but wonder whether the UFC officials, for showbiz’s sake, pretend some of these guys are closer to the weight limit than they are.

UFC knows all about showbiz. According to Forbes magazine, its pay-per-view shows have drawn well over 2 million viewers, most of them male and ages 18 to 49. Formidably shrewd, motor-mouthed former boxing promoter Dana White hosts The Ultimate Fighter, UFC’s hit PPV series on Spike (a men-only Big Brother with grappling gloves), which has taken MMA, essentially a semi-organized barroom brawl in the ’90s, cleaned it up, introduced some rules – including no stomping, no spitting, no throat strikes, no punches to the back of the head, and “no groin attacks of any kind” – and made it into a hot, multiangle, high-impact PPV commodity.

Described memorably by John McCain in 1998 as “human cockfighting,” and under threat of a total ban, MMA has become a different, more saleable, less relentlessly violent kind of “cockfighting” in the nurturing hands of the UFC – so much so that McCain himself recently relented: “The sport has grown up.” As a measure of just how grown up, UFC – for which casino owners the Fertitta brothers paid $2 million in 2001 – is today valued at roughly $1 billion. Cultural respectability has arrived too in the form of a recently published $2,500 MMA art book titled Octagon with a foreword by man-loving straight playwright David Mamet, who wrote and directed the MMA-themed movie Redbelt. MMA is also coming to major-network TV: CBS recently announced plans to air four MMA fights (non-UFC) annually — despite the disapproval of CBS chairman Sumner Redstone. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” he said, perhaps missing the way UFC brings loving and fighting spectacularly together.

There is a lot of passionate hero worship in the world of MMA, not so much homoerotic as hero-erotic – or herotic. Straight male fans and fighters themselves will enthuse with shining eyes about “my idol”, in a way that in most other contexts would be considered much too ‘gay’ to keep a straight face.  But perhaps that’s not so surprising, since MMA owes a lot to those notorious warrior homos, the ancient Greeks. Although today’s MMA came to us via Brazilian jujitsu (alas, not conducted in Speedos, as the name may suggest), many consider it the modern version of pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling that was the basis of combat training for Greek soldiers and an original Olympic sport. With lethal purity, pankration had two primary rules: no eye-gouging or biting. Fingers were often snapped off. Sometimes death or unconsciousness was the only form of submission (rather like this year’s Democratic primaries).

MMA’s younger fans are not likely to acknowledge their sport’s homoerotic heritage. For most of these young men, many of them blue-collar and swooningly in love with masculinity, gay means unmanly and passive and emasculated – and therefore major turn-off. MMA is gay porn for straight men because its violence not only justifies the intimate, protracted, eye-popping physicality of the sport but also preserves its virility – the very thing that gets many of its fans hot. These fighters can’t be fags – look how fucking tough they are, dude! It’s a bit like how in gay porn “real” tops never bottom – for the sake of the bottoms watching.

Sometimes the MMA fighter really is homo – like professional MMA fighter Shad Smith, who was recently profiled in The New York Times. From a tough blue-collar background, Smith was desperate to hide his sexuality at first. “I was petrified because I didn’t want anyone to find out,” he told the Times. “And I would try to be the toughest person around. That way no one would suspect. No one would ever say it. No one would think it.” Doubtless there are quite a few Shad Smiths who became very good, very determined, very motivated scrappers because they weren’t escaping to college or opening a hairdressing salon.

Georges St.-PierreThe tough-guy image is something of an illusion – if an entrancing and convincing one. Surprisingly often, fighters turn out to be sensitive, introspective loners – “fags” who aren’t actually fags — such as Mac Danzig, the beefy auburn-haired killer who is in fact a vegan and whose main pastime, when he isn’t turning another lad’s face into tenderloin, is nature photography. That’s also the story of Georges St-Pierre, a bullied slight boy at school who turned to MMA for salvation, who with his tight, wiry body, immaculately groomed presentation and designer clothes looks rather metro. As one observer put it: “He’s the kind of flash Europunk you might think you could wipe the floor with if you came across him in a bar, but you’d be very, very wrong.”

Likewise you might expect a fight between Serra and St-Pierre to be billed as good ol’ USA versus Frenchy “fag,” but you’d be wrong. Because GSP – to give St-Pierre his brand name – is generally considered to be an exceptional fighter, genuinely excellent in several disciplines, or maybe because this is such a visual medium, he has begun to look like the David Beckham of UFC, albeit one who actually reads books and is, heaven forfend!, interested in philosophy (that’s the French for you). His photogenic face and body and his workouts have been splashed across countless health and fitness magazines.

His opponent, Matt Serra, may be breezily unpretentious and resemble an unpainted fire hydrant, but he is definitely no idiot: “I think they look at Georges as the Crest poster boy with the sparkle in his teeth, the looks, the physique, the body and the athleticism…the real version of what Van Damme was doing,” he’s said. “And then comes me – the Joe Pesci–style ‘Heyooo!’ But it’s cool, man. I’m down with it. I fit in those shoes real well. I’m just looking forward to having another good fight.”

When he turns up for his weigh-in, a relentless tidal wave of boos greets him. An Italian-American pocket battleship at 5 foot 6, Serra weighs in at 169.5 pounds; he appears indifferent to the roiling sea of hatred around him. The booing doesn’t stop when the host offers him the microphone, and whatever he says is completely drowned out. So he offers the crowd two fingers, meaning “two times” and V for victory – and, perhaps, “fuck you.”

Ecstatic cheers greet his challenger St-Pierre, who’s taller by four inches but in stature by several feet. St.-Pierre fluidly strips down to his tasteful and tastily filled-out black underwear and also weighs in at 169.5 pounds. Offered the mike, he graciously tells the crowd they shouldn’t hate Serra and that “I don’t fight with angerrr – I fight with my ‘eart.” The two men pose for the cameras in a fighting stance and then they hug, GSP kissing Serra’s huge neck.

There was no trash talk in the quieter surroundings of the press conference the day before. The fighters had been polite, respectful, even friendly. “C’mon, I’ve got nothing against the French,” protested Serra when the journalists dug up some “Frenchy” quotes from the past. St.-Pierre, for his part, was touchingly open. “I am nervous and scared to fail but that’s normal,” he admitted. “I ‘ave butterflies. but I ‘ave to make the butterflies fly in formation.”

***

AAAYYYYYYYYAYYYYEAAAAAAA-AAHHAAAARGH!!!

The Bell Centre outdoes itself as Georges St.-Pierre, surrounded by his lieutenants, makes his way to the stage in a natty red jujitsu jacket. Climbing into the Octagon, he peels off his silky, tight black T-shirt, and then his baggy trousers come off, revealing tight black trunks with just a white fleur-de-lis on the side of his firm right buttock. It matches the arty tattoo on the back of his steely calf.

Cheers turn to boos. Matt Serra has arrived in a baggy black T-shirt with big white lettering: BUY GUNS SELL GUNS — GUNSAMERICA.COM. The stats on the big screen make difficult reading for Serra: GSP is taller and younger and has a longer reach. Worse, he is more popular and better-looking and has nicer pants. He’s the favourite in every way.

The bell rings, and they touch gloves. In a flash St.-Pierre has Serra on the canvas. All that frustration, regret, resolve, training — and heart — have exploded. All over Serra. To tire him out, St.-Pierre lets him get up, keeping him within range of his own fists but out of Serra’s. Then he takes him down again. St.-Pierre’s purposeful, ominous shoulders rise up like medieval armour, like Joan of Arc seriously narked.

End of round 1. Serra’s eye is swelling up badly. He looks beaten already.

mma_stpierre1_576

Round 2. Plucky Serra tries a kick.  St.-Pierre catches it and takes Serra down. After Serra stands up again, St.-Pierre lets fly a barrage of punches. Serra is too groggy to parry them. St.-Pierre — part panther, part lethal ballet dancer — comes in for the kill, easily taking his opponent down again. Serra offers his back, and St.-Pierre knees him repeatedly, athletically in the ribs in a manner which somehow manages to be as passionate as it is impersonal.

The ref stops the match, and it’s all over: technical knockout. Canada has won. Montreal has beaten Long Island. The butterflies flew in formation. Terrifying formation. And judging by the noise from the crowd, the entire world and its dad have just climaxed.

A grinning St.-Pierre executes a winning somersault. The crowd chants, “FUCK YOU, SERRA! FUCK YOU, SERRA!” He has been fucked. He was fucked. He is fucked. He is without any doubt whatsoever the fuckee. But he exhibits no resentment. The warriors embrace warmly, another kiss from GSP to that huge, now sweaty neck. Serra holds St.-Pierre’s arm up for the crowd, then hoists him on his shoulder, carrying him for a few staggering steps.

If MMA is gay porn for straight men, then tonight a part of me wonders whether, for all its spilled blood and mashed faces, it isn’t the better kind.

After all, no one could seriously accuse gay porn of having “heart.”

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

Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns

 

Mark Simpson on John Hughes’ pristine legacy

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)

So here’s the pitch:  A Hollywood teen movie in which nothing happens.  All day. In a school library. Introduced by a pretentious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.

Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gallery, to the strains of something especially delicate by The Smiths.

What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your millions in these sure-fire hits??

When the director John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influential’ he has been for today’s generation of movie-makers. But it’s difficult to conceive of almost any of his classic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.

John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great characters, winsome, quirky actors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and angsty complexion still looks to me like the prettiest, loveliest girlfriend I never had (while Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had – at least in my mind’s eye).

Hughes movies had feelings, they had intelligence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cynical – ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?’ – wasn’t afraid to be lyrical: ‘Life moves pretty fast.  You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’

Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films liberally. In fact his work, although celebrated now, often by a forty-something crowd crying over their spilt youth, looks like fragments of a lost America. A much better one than the one we ended up with – with much superior taste in pop music.

Precisely because of their humanity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as startling twenty years on as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bedroom door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puckering up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intoxicating mixture of all-American, unblinking, huckstering confidence and very Anglo, coquettish flamboyance is inconceivable in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dismissed as ‘TOO GAY!’.

The famous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 recording of fey Wayne Newton crooning ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deliriously, adenoidally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the previous Britpop invasion of John Hughes’ own youth) and everyone in Hughes’ hometown of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is nothing less than a dreamy pop cultural epiphany.

It was a false one, however. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sentimental, art-loving, anglophile, androgynous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which apparently, and quite appropriately, was actually a glass fibre fake with a British MG sports car underneath), but to ruthless career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stratosphere by steam catapult the previous year, in 1985 – the  same year as The Breakfast Club were chewing their fingernails and wondering, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.

Despite success with the warm adult comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a better, kinder America than the one that actually happened – one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s comedy cringe, snobbery and sadism – Hughes’ Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recovering from the frightening success of annoying kiddie comedy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the perfect riposte to today’s terminally toxic movie business.

As Ferris in his dressing gown put it, raising a quizzical eyebrow at us: ‘You’re still here??  It’s over!  Go home!

Edmund White’s Vulgar Fag-ism

I’ve always liked Edmund White’s refusal to get with the contemporary gay hypocrisy program and shrewishly condemn promiscuity in the hope that this will deliver lots and lots of wedding presents.

In contrast to that pasteurised movie Milk, which lied shamelessly about gay men’s sex lives in the 1970s to make it easier for them to lie about their sex lives today, White, a veteran gay-libber who first started libbing around that time – in bath-houses, back rooms and along the piers – insists on telling it as it was, genital warts and all.

That said, I’ve frequently found his work to be insufferably gayist. Edmund is a five star, old school gay chauvinist – so literally fucking proud to be gay and so obsessed with ‘coming out’ (and attacking those that refuse to join his party) that sometimes I just want to slap him.

Which is why I laughed out loud when frail old Gore Vidal, veteran dissenter from the orthodoxies of sexual identity politics, recently reached out of his wheelchair and did just that, repeatedly, in The London Times. Asked about White’s fictionalised portrayal of Vidal’s letter-writing relationship with the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in the play ‘Terre Haute’, The Gore lambasted White for portraying him as ‘another queen’, only writing about how ‘being a fag is the greatest thing on Earth’ and – in a fantastic phrase that will stay with White forever, like an immortal red handprint on the side of his face  – “vulgar fag-ism”.

Probably it was the ‘vulgar’ part that stung White most (his prose, especially the earlier efforts, sometimes looks as if it’s been fisted by a thesaurus) and provoked the bitchy response in an interview in Salon this week (‘Edmund White comes out swinging’).  Ed describes Gore as a ‘nasty, awful man’, claims sorrowfully to have tried to help him in the past by inviting him to dinner to introduce him to ‘cute boys’, very kindly reminds us of his great age, the fact that he’s wheelchair-bound, his alcoholism, his loss a few years ago of his life-long companion. Practically spelling it out for us in a campy stage whisper: Bitter. Old. Queen.

But apparently this isn’t enough. He also tells us that Vidal is a ‘complete lunatic’ and that ‘it doesn’t bother me what he says about me.’ Yes, dear, but if it doesn’t, why go on so? And on, and on….

‘I don’t know what he’s famous for anywhere, really, because I think those historical novels are complete works of taxidermy. Nobody can read those. “Myra Breckinridge” was funny but light. The essays are what everybody defends — but a friend of mine who did a volume of the best essays of the 20th century said they’re all so topical that they’ve all aged terribly. I don’t know where his work is.’

Ed, sweetie. Even if everything that you and your terribly important literary friends have to say about that ‘nasty awful man’ were true, bitter old alcoholic crippled Gore would still be ten times the writer you are.

And, oh, about 100 times the man.

Catterick Garrison Goes Gay

Catterick

A decade ago the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the UK military was lifted.  This summer Mark Simpson attended the first gay night on a UK garrison.  For purely professional reasons.  No, really.

(Also published on Out.com)

There isn’t at first glance much that appears terribly gay about Catterick Garrison.

Home to the largest UK Army base in the world, with c. 15,000 men and women based here, Catterick Garrison as the name suggests, owes its existence entirely to the British Army — whose favourite colour is khaki. Located off the A1 just before Scotch Corner in the far north of North Yorkshire, ‘Camp’ as Catterick Garrison is known locally – usually without irony – is mostly a utilitarian collection of barracks blocks, Nissan huts, barbed wire fences, and MoD housing, with a dilapidated main parade boasting a Spar, a couple of laundrettes and several takeaways.

A Tesco Superstore did arrive here a few years ago, but they don’t carry much in the way of their Finest range. Imagine Middlesbrough (about a 50 minute drive away), take away the culture, add lots of bracing fresh air and combat trousers and you’ve got Catterick Garrison. Little wonder it was the setting for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s unrelentingly bleak (and not very funny) 2004 sit-com ‘Catterick’.

But tonight at Louis, a no-frills nightclub nestling amongst the lines of neatly parked khaki green Army trucks, Catterick Garrison is also the setting for the first regular, and probably first ever, gay night on a British Army garrison: ‘It’s Catterick GAYrison!!!’ announces the poster on the wall of the place where local single and not-so-single ladies usually go to meet drunken squaddies (‘It’s a parachute club,’ one soldier told me, ‘’coz you’re guaranteed a jump!’).

But tonight a different kind of meat market is promised: ‘Uniform Optional!’ saucily declares the rubric on the poster, next to a sketch of a muscular young squaddie dancing and grinning with his top off. Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts who first suggested the location for Catterick Camp because of its tranquillity and distance from urban enervations must be spinning in his orderly grave.

‘I didn’t like Camp at all when I first moved here a couple of years ago,’ says Lisa, 32, a sunny-natured out lesbian lass from Blackburn serving in the Army as a medic, drinking Strongbow at the bar. ‘The countryside’s nice, but Camp itself is a bit isolated. And the nearest gay pub is a long, long drive away.’ She loves the idea of a gay night in Catterick. ‘It’s just what we need. Plus this place is just around the corner from me and I can stagger home! Until this came along there was nothing in the way of socialising for lesbian and gay service personnel here.’

When Lisa joined up twelve years ago homosexuality (and bisexuality) was still banned in the UK Forces: ‘they still asked if you’d had any same-sex experiences and I had to lie.’  The ban was formally lifted in 2000 after four former service personnel, drummed out for being gay, won their case against the MoD for discrimination in the European Court of Human Rights ten years ago this autumn.

In the Nineties the idea of a gay night on a UK garrison would have been unthinkable – instead military investigators were known to hang around civilian gay pubs in places like Aldershot and Portsmouth taking photos of those coming in and out. But that was then. Last year the Army joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Campaign, and this Summer Soldier magazine featured an out gay male squaddie on the cover for the first time. Interviewed inside, Trooper James Wharton, 22, of the Royal Household Cavalry claimed that he had had little or no trouble with his sexuality from other soldiers: ‘I came out to the Army before I told my parents, so that say a lot for the Armed Forces.’

Lisa is grateful for the 21st Century equal opps approach of the Army: she lives in married quarters with her civilian girlfriend whom she civilly-partnered last year – with a Guard of Honour: ‘6 out of the 8 were gay’.  Attitudes didn’t change overnight, however. ‘In 2004 I was posted to Germany and when they found out I was a lesbian they moved me away from the other nurses and onto my own corridor. I put my foot down and they finally moved me back, but they didn’t like it. It’s this thing of, “she’ll be looking at me in the showers!”.

Lisa thinks this kind of anxiety is the still a problem for many gay and bi males in the Army. ‘I know quite a few gay squaddies, and most of them aren’t out because they’re worried about being bullied and also the backs-against-the-wall-lads! mentality. It’s definitely different for gay men in the Army, especially in front-line units like the ones based in Catterick. The macho thing kicks in’.

Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been able to find any out gay male squaddies here tonight. Instead about thirty local gays and lesbians and their straight friends, and two charmingly tipsy young off-duty (they’ve left their wigs at home) drag queens from Darlington, Lucy-Licious and Gina Tonic: ‘We came to pull a squaddie,’ says Lucy, aka Josh, ‘everyone loves a soldier don’t they, dear? But when,’ he asks, looking around eagerly, are they turning up?’ Well, quite.

At pub-chucking out time mine and the drag queens’ prayers are answered. Sort of.  A large party of drunken squaddies turn up. But they’re all straight – officially, at least.  Scots Guardsmen celebrating their return from exercise in Canada and determined to continue their evening at the only nightclub in town. They’re not put off by Louis being ‘gay’ tonight.  The burliest, Steve, 32, a married soldier with two kids, has served 12 years and welcomes a gay night in Catterick. ‘It’s about time, if you ask me. Catterick really needs this. It had to happen. This is the modern world, isn’t it? I mean, my wife was living with a woman for four years before she married me’.

Steve thinks that being gay in his regiment isn’t a problem. ‘There are four gay lads in my regiment,’ he explains, ‘and they don’t get any hassle.’ But, I suggest, maybe just four gay squaddies in a 600 strong regiment might suggest that most still don’t feel able to come out? ‘Attitudes have changed a lot, especially with the younger people. But a lot of old school people don’t like it one bit. And my Regiment tends to be very traditional.  We didn’t have any black squaddies until about ten years ago.  Now we have black officers.  I think things will change a lot on the gay front once the older generation retire.’

Chris, a  local gay civvie lad in his early twenties has parents who are both ex-Army.  ‘They’re very old-fashioned in their outlook,’ he says.  ‘They were in the Army when homosexuality was illegal and don’t like me being gay at all.  But they have to put up with it!’  Does he know any gay squaddies?  ‘One or two, but most of the ones I’ve met have been drunken horny straight ones,’ he says, laughing.

Speaking of drunken straight squaddies, one of them is now dancing and twirling with Gina Tonic on the dance floor to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. Steve comes over; grinning he says: ‘Like I said, Mark, attitudes really are changing!’

A little later, the same dancing squaddie walks past and puts his hand on the shoulder of another soldier I’m talking to. It’s a friendly gesture that would mean nothing any other night at Louis (when it’s not entirely unusual for drunken straight squaddies to snog, grope and pretend to hump one another on the dance-floor). But the soldier I’m talking to looks like he’s been electrocuted, whips around and shouts: ‘’Ere! You’ve got the wrong guy mate, I’m straight!” He points emphatically to a wedding ring on his finger. The dancing squaddie then protests, briefly, his own heterosexuality, pointing to a ring on his finger. Bruised egos suitably salved, they shake hands, grinning and slapping each other on the back.

The organiser of Louis gay night, Dave Parker, 36, a Durham lad with what I can only describe as cheeky eyes, is gay himself, and has lived in Catterick Camp for ten years. ‘I just thought it was about time we had a gay night,’ he says.  ‘Plus it will help to change attitudes as well as provide a place for gay Army people and locals to socialise. The feedback I’ve had has all been positive. Though I’ve heard that one or two have been complaining about ‘bloody poofs’ – but’ he laughs, ‘not to my face!’

Some might say that he’s set himself something of a challenge. ‘It’s a shame there were only a few lesbians and no gay male squaddies tonight,’ he admits, ‘but it will take a while for a gay night in Catterick to take off.’ Yes, it probably will. Dave has high hopes for next month though: everyone will be back from leave, and he’s booked a male stripper. ‘From Down South. Wigan, I think it was,’ he says with a wink.

‘Mind,’ he adds, ‘I should have booked one of the local Army PTi’s instead. They’d probably have done it just for some free drinks. They love putting on a show, some of them. And god knows they use the tanning salon enough!’

So there you have it. Catterick Garrison. Gayer than you think.

Gay night at Louis Bar, Kitchener Road, Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.  

There’s Something About Henry

A friend has just drawn my attention to this teasing ‘Letter to David Beckham’ by Mr Rollins recorded a couple of years ago, warning Becks when he moves to LA to play for LA Galaxy he’s not going to be so special: the town is already full of ‘metrosexuals… with crunchy hair and distressed jeans and absolutely glowing skin’.  And warning him that he’s not going to sell soccer to American kids because they when they see a soccer game they think ‘soccer… gay!’

It’s funny, and perhaps given Beckham’s Stateside fortunes today also on the money, but the funniest part of it is perhaps not entirely intentional.  When Rollins talks about ‘us metrosexuals’ the gag, like the image of Henry primping his crew cut under a salon hairdryer, seems to be that no one could be less metro than thick-necked, bulldog-voiced, tattooed Henry.  But I’m not so sure.  There’s something intensely narcissistic about Henry, it’s part of his star quality – and his pumped, buzz-cut masculinity does look self-conscious and a little accessorised.  (And I should know about accessorizing such things.)

What’s more, like many metros Henry’s sexuality has been the subject of rumours and innuendo for years, something which he has often complained about – though he himself seems to be here making joshing innuendo about Beckham’s sexuality himself.  Maybe the rumours are so persistent because he’s outspokenly pro-gay rights (only a gay could care about the gays so much, the ‘reasoning’ perhaps goes), he’s middle-aged and unmarried, and quite a few gay – and straight – men fancy him.  Or maybe it’s because he does look a bit ‘gay’ in that slightly cartoonish, slightly over-drawn, over-inked butch way.

For what it’s worth, I’m more than happy to accept that Henry the person isn’t homo, but Henry the persona does have a certain queerness about him that just won’t quit, which is an important part of what makes him intriguing to the public.  This is what I was trying to get at, I think, in the brief interview below that Rollins gave me in his modest-sized hotel room during the London leg of his 1998 Spoken Word Tour.

Tip: Topak

Henry Rollins interviewed by Mark Simpson

(Attitude magazine, September 1998)

Henry Rollins is not gay. Okay? Can we get that straightened out right now?  The ex Black Flag front-man, stand-up comic, author, actor, weightlifter and leading exponent of penitentiary chic á la Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, may come across like the American Mishima, but he’s into chicks.  Though not that much.

‘There was this rumour going round,’ says Henry in his oddly articulate jock/jarhead/jeffstryker way. ‘Fucking MTV called me up and asked me if I’d like to come out on some show of theirs. ‘So I’m gay, huh? I think I’d remember some guy fucking me up the ass!’ The thing that bummed me out about it is that when you have the ‘he’s gay’ fiction spread around the media about you it’s only to slander you. Everyone is like, ‘That guy, he’s a fucking fag!’. But for me being gay is just such a non event. You are into what you’re into. End of story.’

Why do you suppose people think you’re homo?

I asked my gay friends why people thought I was gay, and they said, ‘You’re 37 and in shape. You are thoroughly focussed. You have a great ass.’

Maybe the rumours have something to do with the fact that you don’t have a girlfriend?

Well, yeah. That’s possible. I don’t want a girlfriend because I don’t want to have to call someone every day. The only thing I miss on tour is my bar. I got a precision engineered York powerlifting bar; I miss that fucker because it feels so good! I’ve had enough girls in my time, but I’ve slowed up lately. I’d rather jack off than get into something shallow. But I think the problem is that I don’t make a song and dance about the women I do fuck. I don’t go out on the town with them on my arm. I go to the bookstore.

That’s faggy.

Yeah, ‘He must be a fag—he’s literary!’

On the other hand, you are ‘gay’ in the sense that you’ve built yourself your own masculinity.

Is that a gay thing?

Not specifically. But characteristically.

Yeah, you do get some gay guys who are like hyper-masculine. Look at that guy in leather! Hell, that’s two guys in one man! He’s really getting his point across. When I was in high school I was very skinny. It was a Vietnam Vet that got me into weightlifting. It was the first time in my life when I achieved something: I put on 15 pounds of muscle mass. In life you’ve got to have a bit of the ‘Come on motherfuckers! I got something for your ass!’ mentality.

Tell me about it. Do you get offers from men?

Oh yeah. Sure. All the time. And I go, ‘Well, that’s cool, but I’m not from that bolt of cloth,’ and they go ‘Really? I thought you were.’ And I go, no, no I wouldn’t kid you about that. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Not even maybe just this once?’ ‘Nah, really I don’t want to go there.’ One guy hit me with a really great proposition. He said, ‘Well, close your eyes and you really can’t tell the difference. And I’d do it a lot better than any chick you’ve been with.’ ‘Well, since you’ve got a cock I bet you would.’ But you know, it’s just not my scene.

Your look, the tattoos—have you done time?

Nah. But other convicts… other convicts!—convicts come up to me. One man I’ll never forget. Nebraska, 1988. Old school prison tattoos. Guy walks by and goes, ‘Brother!’ ‘Scuse me?’ ‘Soledad, ’85 Right!’ ‘Er, no.’ ‘Chino?’ ‘No.’ ‘Hell, I’ve done time with you somewhere…’ [in a nerdy bookworm voice:] ‘Well, no sir, actually not’.

How do you think you’d fare in prison? Do you think you’d be some motherfucker’s bitch?

I don’t know man. You’re looking at me about eight pounds underweight, usually I’m 200, but I can’t get the lifts because I’m touring so much, I think that kind of keeps me out of little bitch mode, I’m not anybody’s idea of a piece of chicken, and as far as fighting goes, I know a little bit about that. But in prison, I’d probably be fucking terrified man.

But hasn’t your whole life been a kind of preparation for prison? No family life, no time off—all that lifting weights…

Well, other people tell me where to go because I want to go there, I let them structure it for me. But yeah, I see what you’re saying. I went to a military school for seven years and that had a big impact on me. My dad was also ex-military. My Dad would say stuff like, ‘Fall-out for McDonalds’. Fall-out for your fucking Happy Meal. Shit like that gets to you after a while.

A shrink would say that you have a very punishing super-ego.

(Rollins shrugs his large shoulders)

What I mean is, it sounds as if a part of you is always watching over yourself, policing you –always demanding better.

Oh, that’s true. A lot of my work is result orientated. I’m always trying to do a better show, a better CD, a better book. I have to grade myself nightly. I come off the stage and I often kick myself….

I’ve heard that you were recently ‘watched over’ by someone else.

Oh yeah well, {acting out the scene very loudly} this guy is standing next to me just staring at my dick, and I’m thinking, this is cool, I can deal with this, and my bladder’s fucking bursting but I can’t go, man! I said to myself, Watch me take a leak with this guy watching me and me not give a fuck. But this guy totally took me. He won. Maybe he was some kind of urine comptroller. Fucking crazy shit, man.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2009

The Homosexual is 140 – And Showing His Age

Karl Maria Kertbeny

The father of the metrosexual Mark Simpson on the birth of the  homo- and hetero- sexual era

(Out, September 2009)

As you may have noticed, the out-and-proud modern gay, born amidst protest, shouting and flying bottles outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969, is now forty years old. But you may be less aware that this year is also the 140th birthday of a much more discreet and distinguished (if pathologized and sometimes pitiful) figure that Stonewall is often seen as making obsolete:

The homosexual.

The offspring of Austrian-born Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, the homosexual was delivered to the world in a couple of pamphlets he published anonymously in 1869 arguing against the Prussian anti sodomy law Paragraph 143 – the first appearance in print of the word.

Kertbeny argued that attraction to the same sex was inborn and unchangeable and that besides, the law violated the rights of man: men should be free to do with their bodies as they pleased, so long as others were not harmed. Kertbeny maintained strenuously that he himself was ‘sexually normal’ (and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, save perhaps his strenuousness).

Kertbeny’s ‘homosexual’, itself a disapproved conjugation of Greek and Latin, was part of a larger classificatory system of human sexual behaviour he conceived which included quaint terms such as ‘monosexuals’ (masturbators), and ‘pygists’ (aficionados of anal sex), most of which have not survived. However, another of his quaint categories has persisted and ultimately proved even more popular than the ‘homosexual’: the vast majority of people in the US today would happily and perhaps rather too hastily describe themselves as ‘heterosexual’ – despite the fact that the ‘father’ of heterosexuality, as Jonathan Ned Katz has pointed out in ‘The Invention of Heterosexuality’ (1995), seemed to conceive of heterosexuals as more sex-obsessed than homosexuals and more open to ‘unfettered degeneracy’.

Words like most offspring have a life of their own of course, and in this case one that worked against the coiner’s intentions. Despite Kertbeny’s libertarian if not actually homo-chauvinist sentiments, we might never have heard of the ‘homosexual’ (or indeed the ‘heterosexual’) if the word had not been adopted by Richard von Krafft-Ebing a few years later as a diagnosis for mental illness, setting the medical tone for much of the coming Twentieth Century with its aversion therapies, sex-lie detectors and psychiatric water-boarding.

Kertbeny’s double-edged legacy isn’t just the coining of the word ‘homosexual’, but helping to invent ‘sexuality’ itself: the very modern idea that there are different species of people constituted by their sexual preference alone – ‘heterosexuals’ and ‘homosexuals’ (and ‘bisexuals’ as an exception-to-prove-the-rule afterthought). Kertbeny invented the homosexual because he considered the other available terms, ‘pederast’, ‘sodomite’ and ‘invert’ too judgemental. He also saw no link between homosexuality and effeminacy – which he didn’t mind being judgemental about: he detested it.

As the brilliant sexual historian David Halperin puts it in his book ‘How To Do the History of Male Homosexuality’ (2002), pre-homosexual discourses referred to only one of the sexual partners: the “active” partner in the case of sodomy; the effeminate male or masculine female in the case of inversion. ‘The hallmark of “homosexuality”…’ he writes, ‘is the refusal to distinguish between same-sex sexual partners or to rank them by treating one of them as more (or less) homosexual than the other.’

The concept of the ‘homosexual’, medicalized or not, ultimately made possible the rise of the out-and-proud gay man, regardless of his own ‘role’ in bed or gender style, and also a gay community of equals. But it also tended to make all sex between men, however fleeting, however drunken, however positioned, ‘homo’ – along with all the participants, regardless of their sexual preference.

With the paradoxical result that there’s probably now rather less erotic contact – or in fact any physical contact at all – between males than there was when the homosexual was born, 140 years ago. The homosexual, in effect, monopolised same-sex erotics and intimacy.

Which is, frankly, a bit greedy.

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

Homoerotic Horseplay – Not Gay Just Guy

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A column of mine on Out.com, ‘Men At Play in Afgrabistan’, gallantly defends the freedom of the derided (and now dismissed) security guards at the US embassy to get naked with one another and eat potato chips from each other’s butts in their spare time – even if they’re out of shape.  I also point out how everyday and ‘normal’ homoerotics is for many if not most men – but we don’t want to see it, and when we can’t ignore it because it’s thrust in our face by digital cameras and the Interweb we pathologize or criminalize it:

…the furor is another reminder that we live in a culture where female bi-curiousness is routinely regarded as natural and almost universal while male bi-curiousness is seen as non-existent – or else it is just “sexually confused” (i.e. they’re really gay, but laughably repressed), or it is “deviant hazing” conducted by “sexual predators” that needs to be eradicated.

In reality, to anyone who opens their eyes on a Saturday night on either side of the Atlantic, there’s scads of evidence that plenty of “normal” young men who aren’t particularly “sexually confused” — especially the most, er, physical types – have a healthy appetite for highly homoerotic behavior after a keg or two. It’s what beer seems to have been invented for. In the Middle Ages they thought the cause of sodomy was drunkenness – they weren’t wrong. By contrast, I’ve hardly ever seen such homoerotic horseplay amongst straight women, even despite the invention of alcopops (though admittedly I perhaps wasn’t looking as closely.)

Some people have a more violently negative response to the everyday evidence of male homoerotics, literally trying to stamp it out.  In the UK a straight female Canadian martial arts expert attacked and knocked out a couple of drunken British soldiers at a disco for kissing and ‘pretending to be gay’, screaming ‘THIS SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED IN THE BRITISH ARMY!!’.

Living in a garrison town I’ve seen plenty of similarly steamy behaviour from drunken squaddies in pubs and on dance-floors, snogging and humping and groping one another, so I can understand her frustration – I’ve wanted to get physical too, but not in quite the same way she did.

Sometimes the response is more genteel, but just as vehement.  During the last Rugby World Cup a couple of years ago I was invited on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four to talk about homoerotics and rugby.  I thought it a bit odd that Woman’s Hour wanted to cover this subject, but the producer enthused: ‘The presenter Jane is really keen to talk about it’.  It turned out that neither the presenter, a former female sports journalist, or her guest, another female sports journalist, wanted to talk about it at all.

Both of them refused point blank to countenance the possibility that a game that involves men with large thighs wrestling in the mud over odd-shaped balls, or taking communal baths, or kinky nude drinking games that would shock the guards at the American Embassy in Afghanistan, could be in any way homoerotic.  Only a homo would say such a thing.

‘Of course you would say that Mark,’ she said at one point, ‘because you’re gay.’

I paused.  Several things occurred to me to say to that.  I could have said that droves of gay men were probably rushing at that very moment to dissociate themselves from what I was saying (they usually do).  Or I could have said, ‘Well, of course you would say that Jane, as an uptight middle class woman’.

Instead I said, ‘It seems that some people have a problem with the word “homoerotic”.  They think that it means something ‘for gays’.  Perhaps some people would be happier with the word “male bonding”.’

‘Yes!’ they chorused, ‘it’s male bonding!’

‘But,’ I continued, ‘it’s male bonding with an erotic component so we’re back where we came in.’

They didn’t like that.

Just a few weeks earlier this doc had gone out on national UK TV, in which a team of northern rugby players were shown getting drunk and naked with one another, snogging, licking each other’s nipples – and playing with their captain’s ‘donkey dick’. Of course, I couldn’t even mention it, because on radio – especially Radio Four – you’re not allowed to acknowledge that TV exists.

Again, being radio, and posh radio at that, just before we went on air a nice voice whispered in my headphone. ‘Remember Mark, this is a family show so please try not to be too rude!.’   This did hamper my case somewhat, as rugby homoerotics are meant to be rude. Though it didn’t stop me from leaving something unsavoury hanging in the air: ‘The soggy biscuit game, for example, isn’t entirely a myth….’.

‘I think we’d better move on,’ said Jane rather quickly.  Apparently the BBC switchboard was jammed with retired lady callers demanding to know what the soggy biscuit game was.

(This feature of mine from a couple of years back, ‘Assume the position’, offers a more in-depth investigation of the culture’s crackdown on hazing and male horseplay in general.)

 

Lewis & Martin’s 50’s Love Makes Today’s Bromance Look Like Bromide

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This month’s Outfeatures a column by yours truly, called ‘In Defense of Jerry Lewis‘, explaining how my childhood love for early Lewis made me the man I am today — and why his anarchic comedy partnership with Dean Martin in the ‘repressed’ 1950s was a kind of queer punk rock before even rock and roll had been invented:

‘Their heads were so close together in those tiny ’50s cathode-ray tubes — gazing into each other’s eyes, rubbing noses, occasionally stealing kisses or licking each other’s neck to shrieks of scandalized pleasure from the audience. They were a prime-time study in same-sex love. And they were adored for it — literally chased down the street by crowds of screaming women and not a few men…’.      (‘In Defense of Jerry Lewis’)

Though these clips below probably explain it all rather better.

They also show how compared to Martin and Lewis, today’s much vaunted ‘bromance’ comedies are more akin to bromide. Lesbian bed death without the honeymoon. Instead of going out of their way to purge their stage romance of any hint of passion or anything physical in the way that annoyingly self-conscious, college-educated 21st Century buddy comedies do (the word ‘bromance’ itself suggests that any hint of erotics would be akin to incest), Martin and Lewis’ blue-collar, mid-century love-affair constantly injects it. Flags it up. And slaps your face with it. Theirs is literally a much more ticklish affair. And a shitload funnier for it.

What’s more, it looks very convincing.

(Oh, and yes, it may be that I still feel fond of Jerry Lewis because his telethons never made it to the UK….)

An exploision of D&J kisses in this cheeky and charming clip painstaking compiled by a YouTube fan.

‘It’s physical attraction.’


The noise made by the audience when Dean falls on top of Jerry in the bath wouldn’t be heard again until Elvis shook his pelvis.


Jerry gets some big pricks in the Navy and then sprays everywhere.


Dean and Jerry join the Army as paratroopers. Watch Dean’s eyes during the blanket scene.

‘I was loinesome.’



Spot a (very tiny-looking) James Dean giving a boxer a rub-down while scoping the competition.


A slightly fictionlised account of how our boys met, complete with closet clinch climax.


Never been kissed… Yeah, right.



Special thanks to the Canadian playwright Elise Moore and Hannah for re-kindling my unhealthy Lewisian love-affair, offering insightful observation – and sending me some really great YouTube Martin & Lewis love.


The Gay Case Against Gay Marriage and Gay Bigotry

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By Mark Simpson (Guardian CIF, 30 April 2009)

Who would have guessed the dainty opinions of a Miss America candidate would have been taken so seriously by gays and liberals?

Miss California, a practising Christian, was last week denounced by Miss America judge Perez Hilton on his blog as ‘a dumb bitch’ and unworthy of the Miss America crown because she gave the ‘wrong’ answer to his chippy question about gay marriage. Like most Americans – including the current Democratic President of the United States – she believes that marriage is ‘between a man and a woman’. Boo! Hiss! Rip her to shreds!

It wasn’t just the famously bitchy gay gossip-monger Hilton casting stones, however. For honestly and somewhat courageously answering his question Miss California was roundly condemned as a ‘bigot’ by hosts of gay and liberal bloggers, and was even denounced by the directors of the Miss California pageant who declared themselves ‘saddened’ by her views and that they had no place in the ‘Miss California family’, whatever that is. Most now agree with Hilton’s gloating claim that her answer cost her the crown.

Candidate Obama expressed the exact same view during the Presidential Election: “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. You know, God’s in the mix.” Instead of being scorned as a bigot and a dumb bitch, Obama was handed the Mr America crown by liberals and probably most gay voters. But I suppose that being President of the United States is a rather less important title than Miss America.

Branding Christians and traditionalists ‘bigots’ for being Christians and traditionalists and thus none too keen to fundamentally revise the definition of marriage is a highly unattractive exercise in liberal self-righteousness that makes Miss America look quite sophisticated. Not to mention sounding a lot like pots and kettles rattling. It’s faintly absurd to have to even say this, but it isn’t bigoted to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s just being conventional. And after all, marriage itself is convention and tradition tied up in a big red bow and covered in confetti and sprinkled with Holy Water. Which is exactly why lesbians and gays should have nothing to do with it.

Today’s out and proud same-sex relationships are very unconventional and a very new kind of phenomenon. And so are in fact many of today’s cross-sex relationships in a brave new world of gender parity. Marriage on the other hand is an antiquated, failing institution based on inequality and traditional roles. Much like Miss America.

Marriage is, whether you like it or not, also based on religious sentiment: ‘God’s in the mix.’ Especially in a very religious country like America. And I have a hunch, based on millennia of violent opposition to sex that doesn’t produce more Christians, that God is not going to sanctify ‘sodomy’ any time soon.

New ways of living and loving require new institutions. Or in the words of the famously unmarried Galilee carpenter and fisher of men: put new wine into new wineskins. And keep the flippin’ Pharisees out of it. Or else you’ll end up with a tacky mess.

It needs to be said out loud that full civil unions with the same legal rights and privileges of marriage at both the State and Federal level, supported by President Obama and many Republicans and even some right-wing evangelicals – and the large majority of American voters – are not only much more politically achievable in the US than gay marriage, they are also a better fit for most same sex relationships. What’s more they represent an entirely dignified way of side-stepping this endless, unsightly domestic between liberal and conservative, secular and religious, metropolitan and rural America.

But instead, gay marriage zealots, many of whom admit that they themselves don’t wish to get married, insist on characterising civil unions as ‘second class’, ‘social apartheid’ or ‘riding at the back of the bus’. I’d like to think it was merely a ploy to make fully-recognised civil unions more achievable, but many really seem to believe their own shrill propaganda. Worse, they’ve made even more of a fetish of the word ‘marriage’ than the religious right they rail against.

In the UK, where nationally recognised same-sex civil unions with the same legal status as marriage – called civil partnerships – were introduced in 2004 there is little or no appetite now for gay marriage. In my experience few lesbians or gays feel they are ‘riding at the back of the bus’. Maybe because in many ways they’re actually riding at the front. It’s probably only a matter of time before gay civil partnerships in the UK are made available to all, as they are in France – where the vast majority of applications are now made by cross-sex couples disenchanted with traditional marriage.

What’s more, fully-recognised, open-to-all civil unions are a fully-fledged secular institution that helps to shore up a fragile secular society. And make no mistake, it is secularism on which most of the – historically very, very recent – freedoms enjoyed by lesbians and gays are based, along with those of women.

But so far the gay marriage crusade in the US doesn’t seem very interested in any of this or lessons it might learn from the experience of other countries. Instead it seems too busy proving itself holier-than-thou. And less sophisticated than Miss America contestants.

The Obama Model

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Mark Simpson on fashion’s new love-affair with black males (Arena Hommes Plus, Spring 2009)

Shortly after Obama’s election last year, Israeli-American designer Elie Tahari made a prediction: ‘I think the fashion industry will have a ball with him.’ So far, this is one fashion prediction that has been on the money. Since Obama’s glitzy inauguration this January, the men’s fashion world, too often associated with a ‘Whites Only’ catwalk, hasn’t stopped dancing with the first non-white in the White House.

At the menswear shows in Milan this January a waving, smiling young Barack Obama look-a-likey led the final walk-out for Lanvin, complete with Inaugural Address overcoat, leather gloves and USA tie-pin. Givenchy meanwhile included several male models of colour for their show, and their new poster campaign features a Obama-esqe young man in an open, white silky shirt with sleeves rolled up for business, full lips parted as if caught mid-speech.

givenchy-men-2-1Oscar Garnica, agent at Request Models in New York says that he and his contacts in the business have seen a more consistent use of black models recently. ‘Since the Black issue of Vogue, and the Obamas took the White House, that inspiration is running through a lot of the collections,’ he says. ‘Having more images of people of colour around has probably made designers more comfortable about adding colour to their aesthetic.’ But he is cautious about the long term impact: ‘Now that we are seeing four-five models of color on the runway, will the designers continue booking these numbers? Well, that remains to be seen.’

Whatever else Obama’s Presidency might signify, the fashion world seems to have decreed that, for this season at least, the black male is power, hope, leadership – in a word: style.

Ironically, part of the reason that Obama’s booking by the American electorate has helped non-white models get bookings with the fashion industry is because as Tahari has pointed out, ‘he looks like a male model… he’s built so well.’ Obama has the height, the looks, the teeth – the ‘suntanned’ skin as Italian Premier Berlusconi infamously put it – and the instinctive understanding of where the camera is and what angle best suits him. He is patently photogenic – and his photogeneticity has helped to make this young, inexperienced man Presidential. To some degree, he got the job because he gave good face. Even his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention last Summer was delivered at the end of a catwalk.

So no wonder the fashion world wants to appropriate some of that. Michelle might be First Lady, and Obama might have exclaimed to the world ‘How beautiful is my wife?’ on inauguration night, but pretty as she is, she probably made the cover of Vogue because of her husband’s looks.

As a result of his religiously regular gym sessions on the Stairmaster, Obama is not the same shape as most US male politicians – or in fact, most US males. He really is ‘un-American’ – he can wear fashionable clothes. Even though he usually chooses to wear those Teflon-coated Hart, Schaffner, Marx & Hillman suits from Chicago, his have a narrow cut that advertises the fact that he has a body, buns and even angles. Gone are the flapping flannels of traditional US male politicians. (Even his political message was self-consciously stylish: those famous campaign slogans ‘HOPE’ and ‘CHANGE!’ were printed in Gotham font – originally developed for the men’s style magazine GQ.)

Most remarkably of all, he gets away with it. In a white US male politician such self-care and stylishness would probably be ridiculed. John Edwards you may remember got into terrible trouble for combing his hair and being pretty.

The fickle fashion world will of course tire of its clinch with Obama. But perhaps something will endure: perhaps the men’s fashion business will be less inclined than in the past to think of blackness as something ‘street’ and thus ‘sportswear’.

As Oscar Garnica at Request Models puts it: ‘Despite images of suave black men like Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington, there has always been a narrow definition of what black is allowed to be. My best hope is that Obama’s rise to the highest office in the land will shine a spotlight on the fact that there is more to the black male image than just the stereotypes.’

Copyright Mark Simpson 2009

Morrissey’s Seven Inch Plastic Strap-On

 

There’s a naked man standing laughing in your dreams.
You know who it is, but you don’t like what it means.

A number of people have forwarded Morrissey’s pubes to me. (For which, many thanks.)

I thought I could get away with not discussing the Moz minge, but this Red Hot Chili Peppers pastiche, nostalgic vinyl taking the place of stuffed socks, which appears on the inside sleeve of Morrissey’s new single ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ has generated a lot of commentary, some amused, some not, and some, such as Paul Flynn in the Guardian, citing it as ‘the latest sign of artistic decline’.

But all of it suggesting Morrissey’s curlies cannot be ignored.

It’s funny how Morrissey manages to repeatedly surprise people with his consistent, insistent coquettishness. Only last year, legions were scandalized when that picture taken in the early 90s of His Mozness’ naked hairy arse with ‘YOUR ARSE AN’ ALL’ scrawled across it in Magic Marker  (with the apostrophe in ‘AN’ ALL’ aimed at Moz’s fundament) appeared in a booklet for his Greatest Hits collection: ‘So gross! This must mean he’s, like, totally gay!’

morrissey-cheeky

But Morrissey, odd, reclusive creature that he is, has never exactly been a shrinking violet. His work has always had a naughty, ‘cheeky’, exhibitionist side. As he sang back in the day on the Meat is Murder track ‘Nowhere Fast’: ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen – every sensible child will know what this means’. His first single featured a close-up of naked male gay porn star’s bubble-butt. His first album had a shot of the torso of a naked male hustler on it. (Like all the artwork during his Smiths period, it was all selected and directed and probably even pasted up by him.)

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After The Smiths split, he became his own cover star and was to be found hugging his topless solo self on his 1997 ‘Best Of’ collection.

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And while he may have once scorned her shamelessness, Moz’s outrageous ‘November Spawned a Monster’ promo in 1990 out-Madonna-ed Madonna, featuring him writhing in the desert in a skimpy see-through mesh blouse that somehow keeps slipping off – perhaps because he appears to be being bummed by an odd-shaped boulder.

On-stage he pole-dances around his songs often ending on his back with his legs in the air, obligingly lifted towards the auditorium, while yodelling. Even today, it’s still an absolute and legal requirement of all tickets sales that Moz strips off his sweat-soaked shirt at least once every show and throw it into the crowd, who instantly rend it to tiny fragrant shreds, which they then appear to eat.

If Morrissey doesn’t get his tits out for the lads and lasses you’re entitled to a full refund, I believe. It’s always been a flagrantly, probably pathologically sexual thing between Moz and his fans. Though as he’s got older and thicker around the midriff the pole-dancing, does get a bit more, er, awkward.

Oh, and the naked Moz showing us his shaved armpit shot by Eamonn McCabe (which seems to be an update of the famous Narcissus statue by Cellini) used on the jacket of Saint Morrissey – partly to undermine the title  – originally appeared on the cover of the NME in 1988 and on a big, fold-out, blue-tac-to-your-sweaty-teen-boy-bedroom-wall poster inside.

Today’s naked Moz looks very different. Which is only natural since he’s now nearly 50 – though of course ageing naturally is the height of unnaturalness these days. But the boyish exhibitionism is largely unchanged. Yes, he has the body of a middle-aged male celebrity who scandalously refuses to hire a personal fitness trainer (even if one or two of the chaps in his employ look as if they’d rather be on a ten mile run).

But he’s also showing us that inside the body of a pub landlord from County Mayo is still a skinny lonely boy from Stretford, nakedly demanding our love. With a seven inch pop single where his manhood should be. That’s how people don’t grow up.

If you look closely – and clearly I have – this jokey pic isn’t really very funny. Like ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, it’s sadly, proudly defiant. It’s Morrissey’s family portrait. This is what his love-life looks like. It’s all here: Pop music. His band-mates. His fans (we’re looking at him again – he’s that naked man laughing and crying in our dreams).

And, centre of shot, perhaps his most enduring relationship of all: the one he has with his hair.

Both ends.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.