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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – Two Decades of Male Deliciousness

‘Metrodaddy’ Mark Simpson on the evolution of male vanity

(Originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph June 10, 2015)

In a development which will probably have him running to the mirror yet again to search anxiously for lines, this year the metrosexual leaves his teens and turns twenty. How quickly your children grow up. Although it seems only yesterday, I first wrote about him in 1994 after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’. I’d seen the future of masculinity and it was moisturised.

‘Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are) is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade,’ I predicted.

Two decades of increasingly out and proud – and highly lucrative – male vanity later, and the metrosexual remains the apple of consumerism’s rapacious eye. In a recent report HSBC drooled all over his ‘Yummy’-ness, breathlessly pointing out how mainstream metrosexuality has become.

This was of course old news to anyone with eyes to see the extremely image-conscious and product-consuming men around them – or in bed with them – frantically trying to attract our attention. Or the way that the glistening pecs and abs of Men’s Health magazine have been outselling the glamor breasts of ‘lad mags’ for several years.

Or indeed anyone who saw the news last year that UK men now spend more on shoes than women.

Hard to believe in such a fragranced, buffed, ripped, groomed, selfie-adoring and social ME-dia saturated world as ours now is, the metrosexual had to struggle to be heard in an un-tucked ‘no-homo’ early 1990s. Most people were in New Lad denial about what was happening to men and why they were taking so long in the bathroom.

Just as male homosexuality was still stigmatised and partly criminalised back then, the male desire to be desired – the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality – was still scorned by many. Narcissism was still seen as ‘essentially feminine’.

Or Wildean – and look what happened to him. The trials at the end of the 19th Century of Oscar Wilde, the last dandy who famously proclaimed that ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance’,  had stamped, like a steam-powered die, a Victorian division of sexual labour over much of the 20th Century. Male vanity was at best womanish – but more likely simply passive and perverted.

The arrival of a shiny new Millennium, the abolition of the last laws discriminating against homosexuality, and the arrival of the preening dominance of celebrity culture with its Darwinian struggle to be noticed in a visual, ‘branded’ world finally blew away the last remnants of Victorianism.

To illustrate this I only have to mention two words: David Beckham. The working class family man England footballer who became much more globally famous for his attention-seeking haircuts, unabashed prettiness and rampant desire to be desired than for his footballing skills. Once the sarong-wearing, gay loving, cheek-sucked male model midfielder was outed in 2002 (by me again, sorry) as flamingly metrosexual, everyone suddenly ‘got it’. All that Nineties denial turned into incessant Noughties chatter about metrosexuals and ‘male grooming’. Often to little purpose.

In fact, the momentous nature of the masculine revolution that metrosexuality represents has been largely obscured by much of the superficial coverage it got. Metrosexuality is, in a paradox that Wilde would have relished, not skin deep. It’s not about facials and manbags, guyliner and flip flops. It’s not about men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’. It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. Just as women have been encouraged to do for some time.

This uptake by men of products, practises and pleasures previously ring-fenced for women and gay men is so normal now – even if we still need to be reassured with the word ‘man’ or ‘guy’ strapped on the front, like a phallic pacifier – that it’s taken for granted by young men today who really have become everything. So much so that it can be really too much for the older generation of metrosexuals.

With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines, it’s eye-catchingly clear that second generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first. Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies more than clobber and product have become the ultimate accessory, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in the online marketplace.

This new wave of metrosexuality has hyped the ‘sexual’ part and become ‘spornosexual’ – the pumped-up offspring of those spornographic Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures. But unlike Beckham, whose attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s baby Beckhams have photoshopped themselves in real life. Think Dan Osborne in a pair of glittery Speedos. (And then have a lie down.)

Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation social media, selfies and porn is the major vector of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies more than their wardrobe. And definitely not their minds.

I suspect Wilde, who famously enjoyed feasting with panthers, would have approved. I certainly do. Even if I’m a little bit frightened too.

‘Bare Thrills’ Strips Masculinity Down To Its Skidmarks

Maybe I suffer from what Freud described as man’s tendency to devalue what he desires, but I find anything touched by TV survivalist Bear Grylls’ calloused-but-manicured hands difficult to take too seriously.

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But taken seriously he most certainly has been by the UK media with his currently airing C4 reality show The Island, in which thirteen ‘ordinary men’ are marooned on a tropical island for a month to find out whether today’s softies can cut it as ‘hunter gatherer’ butch Bear Grylls types. Nothing very much happens – the Gryllsettes grow beards, lose some pounds, drink a lot of boiled stagnant water, get bitten by sand-flies, and fall out with one another and then back in again. Like Big Brother but more boring.

Though given the column inches devoted to this show you’d think Grylls was some kind of sociologist, anthropologist and cultural seer. Rather than an outdoor cabaret artist with properly hydrated skin and really nice eyes.

So I hesitate to add to C4’s already bulging folder of press cuttings about Grylls’ sweaty island, but the Channel’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt’s defence of the show’s decision not to include women last week was such a wonderfully serious and altogether inadvertent admission of where the actual ‘sexism’ of the show lies that it’s impossible to resist.

Hunt defended her reality show from the straw woman argument, aired widely in the media recently by female survival experts, that it was sexist because it excluded women from the island by reiterating the comically prejudiced premise of the reality show: that it was intended as a ‘real test of modern masculinity’. She went on:

‘Let’s be honest, what better way of finding out what British men were REALLY made of than leaving them to fend for themselves in a frighteningly tropical environment.’

Yes, let’s be honest. Real men don’t eat quiche, but creepy crawlies. Real masculinity is about being deprived of all culture and civilization and potable water. Real masculinity is all about tropical skid marks.

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Women are excluded from the delights of the island not because Ms Hunt didn’t think women would be able to cope, but because doing so would have got in the way of the stereotype that men are ‘really’ savages. Or ‘hunter gatherers’ as she likes to describe them. The show is not about finding out what people are REALLY made of – but today’s men. Because we already know what men should be made of. It’s not sexist, in other words, because its sexism is directed towards chaps. Any sexism towards ladies is just unintended blowback.

In fact this kind of brutish reductiveness about men applied to women by C4 would have brought a much bigger backlash than the one prompted by disgruntled female survival experts. It would have cost Hunt her job. Can you imagine the outcry, for instance, over a reality TV show which announced that it aimed to find out what British women, as a sex, were REALLY made of – by locking them in the kitchen? Or Mothercare?

Any attempt to talk about REAL and ESSENTIAL femininity – let alone applying some contrived ‘test’ of it – is generally held up to fierce criticism these days, now that women are, rather wonderfully, encouraged to believe they can be anything they want to be. Including Chief Creative Officers at C4 – commissioning shows about REAL and ESSENTIAL masculinity. ‘Women are every bit as cut out for this survivalist stuff as men,’ says Ms Hunt. ‘Women are stronger, more independent and more self-reliant than they have ever been.’

Quite so. But while women can be much more than submissive Janes nowadays, men are apparently still supposed to be forever anxiously comparing themselves to some mythical Tarzan that never existed. And if you doubt it never really existed, take a look at Mr Grylls, who is the most absurd and unbelievable confection of a human being imaginable. A survival porn star.

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In an introduction to the series, in which Bare Thrills has, very unusually, kept most of his clothes on, he opined: “I want to find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his existence.” By ‘man’ here Grylls means, as Ms Hunt has explained, not humans, but ‘men’.

The presentation of the series as some ‘real test of modern masculinity’ is, ‘naturally’, completely bogus even by the cranky standards of reality TV ‘experiments’. You could have taken any group of unprepared British men of the last hundred years or so and dropped them in a tropical mangrove swamp equipped with nothing but some garden string, Elastoplasts and hand-held TV cameras with much the same results. (Though it turns out that some of the contestants, and indeed the island itself, weren’t so unprepared after all. But hey, that’s show business.)

But the underlying premise that masculinity has to be ‘tested’, to be proved ‘real’, is what shows up the, ahem, rigid expectations we can still have of men compared to women, even on groovy C4. This is why Grylls, picking up on media chatter of the last year, has talked repeatedly about his show being about today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’.

That phrase is, like Grylls’ show, now much more of a problem than the one it purports to describe. As I’ve written elsewhere, when people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ these days they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that modern masculinity isn’t what they want or expect it to be. Particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps like Chief Scout Grylls (educated at Eton ) want them to be.

And has anyone noticed how no one ever seems to talk about a ‘crisis of femininity’?

Older men may miss some of the masculine certainties of their youth, but most of today’s ‘soft’ young men seem very glad indeed that they’re not banished to the desert island of ascetic old skool masculinity their fathers and grandfathers were. Unless of course it gets them on telly.

Whatever people’s intentions in invoking it, and whatever value it may have had back in the 80s and 90s when male roles really began to change, post Thatcherite-Reaganite crash consumerism and de-industrialization, the concept of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ all these years of change later merely perpetuates the notion that masculinity is one phallic thing only, and that thing needs to be kept up, and ‘hard’. Otherwise we’ll all have a nervous breakdown. And not catch any fish.

In the end, for all the pretentious and possibly sexist claims made for it, everyone knows that The Island is really just entertainment and voyeurism. But it’s cheering to think that the use of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to sell Bare Thrills’ latest instalment of survival porn may finally do for the phrase.

Let’s leave its meagre carcass on the island, picked clean of what little, stringy meat it ever had on it.

Bear Grylls mud bath

Meat the Spornosexual

The second generation of metrosexuals are cumming. And this time it’s hardcore

Dan-Osborne-Spornosexual

by Mark Simpson

What is it about male hipsters and their strange, pallid, highly ambivalent fascination with bodies beefier and sexier than their own? Which means, of course, pretty much everyone?

You may remember last year that last year the Guardian columnist and TV presenter Charlton Brooker had a very messy bowel-evacuating panic attack over the self-sexualisation of the male body exhibited in reality show Geordie Shore.

Now the hipster bible Vice have run a long, passionate – and sometimes quite funny – complaint about today’s sexualised male body by a Brooker wannabe (and lookalikee) titled ‘How sad young douchebags took over modern Britain’.

At least the Vice writer isn’t in total denial. Brooker was so threatened by the brazen male hussies on Geordie Shore and the confusion their pumped, shaved ‘sex doll’ bodies, plucked eyebrows and penises the size of a Sky remote provoked in him that the poor love had to pretend that they didn’t exist outside of reality TV. That they were some kind of science fiction invented to torment and bewilder him and his nerdy body. Perhaps because he’s rather younger than Brooker, Mr Vice on the other hand has actually noticed that these guys really do exist and are in fact pretty much everywhere today, dipped in fake tan and designer tatts and ‘wearing’ plunging ‘heavage’ condom-tight T-s.

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In a media world which largely ignores what’s happened to young men Mr Vice is to be commended that he’s clearly spent a great deal of time studying them. Albeit with a mixture of envy and desire, fear and loathing – and a large side order of self-contradiction and sexual confusion.

He laments that these ‘pumped, primed, terrifyingly sexualised high-street gigolos’ have been imported from America, but uses the execrable imported Americanism ‘douchebag’ to describe them – over and over again. What’s a douchebag? Someone with bigger arms than you, who’s getting more sex than you – and probably earning more than you, despite being considerably less expensively educated than you.

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But by far the most infuriating thing about ‘sad young douchebags’ is that they are so very obviously not sad at all. They and their shameless, slutty bodies are having a whale of a time, thank you very much. They’re far too happy being ‘sad young douchebags’ to sit down and write lengthy, angry rationalising essays about why someone else’s idea of a good time is WRONG. Or read one. Or read anything, in fact. Apart maybe from Men’s Health.

A strong smell of nostalgia emanates from this Vice jeremiad, like a pickled onion burp. The writer laments a lost Eden of masculine certainties and whinges that these young men with their sexualised ‘gym bunny wanker’ bodies have replaced older, more ‘authentic’ English masculine archetypes, ‘the charmer’, ‘the bit of rough’, ‘the sullen thinker’ (which, I wonder, applies to him?) and that as a result:

Nobody wants to be Sean Connery any more. With their buff, waxed bodies and stupid haircuts, the modern British douchebag looks more like a model from an Attitude chatline ad than a potential Bond.

Ah yes, Sean Connery – the former Mr Scotland gym bunny wanker ex chorus boy who wore a wig and fake tan in those glossy, slutty Bond films. Masculinity is never what it used to be. Even back in Ancient Greece everyone was whining that real men went out of fashion with the Trojan War. And what’s so wrong with wanting to look like an Attitude chat line ad, rather than a hired killer?

Oh, that’s right – coz it looks gay.

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All this moaning, along with the writer’s complaints that these buff young men are disappointingly ‘soft’, crap in a fight and don’t have nearly enough scars, reminds me of those gays on Grindr who stipulate in their profile ‘I like my men to be MEN!!’. Or the camp queens who over the years who have solemnly informed me: ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s camp queens!!’ Actually, it reminds me of myself when I was much more hopelessly romantic than I am today, and before I realised real men were really slutty.

There is nothing gayer than the longing for masculine certainties like this. Especially since they never really existed anyway. It’s like believing that the phallus is the real thing and the penis is just a symbol. It’s Quentin Crisp’s Great Dark Man syndrome, but sans the self-awareness, or the archness and the henna.

In fact Mr Vice is so nostalgic – and so young – that he seems to think metrosexuality is something prior to, distinct from and more tasteful than these sexed-up shamelessly slutty male bodies that insist on grabbing his attention, wistfully contrasting how the ‘natural confidence’ of metrosexuality ‘has been replaced by something far more flagrant’. Take it from metrodaddy, today’s flagrantly sexualised male body is merely more metrosexuality. More sexy, more tarty, more porny, more slapped in your face. So stop bitching and suck on it. Metrosexuality has gone hard-core -the ‘sexuality’ part has gone ‘hyper’.

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The metrosexual was born twenty years ago and had to struggle to survive in an untucked ‘no-homo’ 1990s – but the second wave take the revolution he brought about in masculine aesthetics for granted. Steeped in images of male desirability from birth and masturbating furiously to hard-core online porn from puberty, they have totally sexed-up the male body and turbo-charged the male desire to be desired, which was always at the heart of metrosexuality rather than expensive fashion spreads and fastidious lists of ‘dos and don’ts’. Their own bodies rather than clobber and cosmetics have become the ultimate accessory, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity. Nakedly metrosexy.

If we need to give this new generation of hyper metrosexuals a name – other than total tarts – we should perhaps dub them spornosexuals. These mostly straight-identified young men are happy to advertise, like an Attitude chat line, their love of the pornolised, sporting-spurting male body – particularly their own. Along with their very generous availability to anyone’s gaze-graze. Especially at premium rates.

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And everyone is calling their number. Though admittedly not many do it via the extremely kinky route of writing long essays denouncing them and explaining why they’re TOTALLY NOT INTERESTED. Hipsters, who of course think themselves above the vulgarity of sexiness, are simply the ironic, anti-sexual wing of metrosexuality – which is to say, absolutely fucking pointless.

It’s the obvious, if often oblivious, visual bi-curiosity of today’s totally tarty, hyper metrosexuality that alarms people even more than its ‘vulgarity’. Male bisexuality is still largely a taboo precisely because it threatens the final, fond, sacred, and highly phallic myth of masculinity: that it has an (heteronormative) ‘aim’ and ‘purpose’. The scattershot sluttiness of spornosexuals signals a very sticky end to that virile delusion.

Mr Vice argues repeatedly that these young men enjoying their bodies and their lack of inhibition compared to their fathers and grandfathers, are having a ‘crisis of masculinity’. This just smacks of more middle class resentment dressed up as ‘concern’ – a pissy, passive aggressive way of calling them ‘sad douchebags’ again. Or ‘gay’. When people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that masculinity isn’t what they want it to be. And particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps want them to be.

It’s true that our post-industrial landscape often doesn’t know what to do with the male body apart from shag it or sell it, but that’s not necessarily such a terrible contrast with the ‘glorious’ past. For a younger generation of young men no longer afraid of their own bodies there’s no crisis – but rather a liberation. From the dehumanising, sexist constraints of their forefathers. Men’s bodies are no longer simply instrumental things – for fighting wars, extracting coal, building ships, scoring goals, making babies and putting the rubbish out that must renounce pleasure, vanity, sensuality and a really good fingering and leave that to women and pooves.

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Instead the male body has been radically redesigned, with the help of some blueprints from Tom of Finland, as a sensual sex toy designed to give and particularly to receive pleasure. Maybe it’s not terribly heroic, and admittedly some of the tatts are really grotty, but there are much worse things to be. Such as a slut-shaming writer for a hipster magazine.

Of course, I would say that. Because I find these spornosexual, totally tarty young men fuckable. But that’s kind of the point. They desperately want to be found fuckable. It would be extremely rude and ungrateful not to find them fuckable when they have gone to so much trouble doing all those bubble-butt building barbell lunges at the gym for me.

And in fuckable fact, it’s their fuckability which makes the unfuckables hate them so fucking much.

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© Mark Simpson 2014

Mark Simpson’s Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story is available on Kindle.

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Totally tarty Dan Osborne gifs from here – h/t DAKrolak

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1983: The High Summer of (Synth-)Pop

From the gender-bending of Eurythmics, Culture Club & Marilyn, to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, & the Human League, 1983 was, argues Mark Simpson, a high-water mark for pop experimentation.

(Originally appeared on Out.com, 18 Feb, 2014)

IN 1983, THE YEAR THAT MCDONALD’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when huge NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a nuclear first strike.

More ominously still, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t actually end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much, much worse: the end of pop music. (Though it was going to take a while.)

Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor – since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music eva.

1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally — my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED(!) and LCD(!!) equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.

But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s ‘Love Is a Stranger’ that its cunning salesman slapped on – at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:

And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”

Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, and their first hit, ‘This Charming Man’, also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride (albeit with guitars not synths playing on the radio). This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was.

The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Improvisation was king. Eurythmics recorded their smash-hit album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings ‘Hold your head up/ Keep your head up.’

In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop ‘Love Is a Stranger’ from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)

This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single ‘Relax’. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)

Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.

The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.

Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track ‘Blue Monday’, which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a transporting track like ‘Your Silent Face’, whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album). It became the best selling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-‘Blue Monday’ world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.

Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death either in the common room or in my bedroom included the deliciously silly ‘Blind Vision’, by Blancmange; the surprisingly political ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)’, by Wham!; the sublimely whiney ‘Everything Counts’, by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky ‘Rip it Up’, by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious ‘Visions in Blue’, by Ultravox; the hair-prickling ‘Song to the Siren’, by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song ‘Soul Inside’, by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the lazy lyricism of ‘Christian’ by China Crisis; the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping ‘Too Shy’, by Kajagoogoo; the plaintively insistent ‘Come Back and Stay’, by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of ‘Electric Avenue’, by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of ‘All of My Heart’, by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delightfully absurd synth-goth of ‘The Walk’, by the Cure; the stolen kisses of ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’, by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet ‘Church of the Poison Mind’, by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure ‘Burning Down the House’, by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’, by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash ‘Let’s Dance’, a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.

With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?

Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his Serious Moonlight tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.

The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single ‘Girls on Film’ was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly ‘day version’ was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and ‘The Reflex.’

The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s famous KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)

It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for ‘Everything Counts’, the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in an especially twinky Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.

For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — a sexual ambiguity vibrated in the sequenced air.

Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but yet unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the wonderful whingeing of ‘Pale Shelter’ — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”

And then there was cute Merseyside duo China Crisis, whose video for their single ‘Christian’ was so knowingly homoerotic that I actually missed how much it was at the time. I was, believe it or not, too innocent. Apparently shot in a Roman gay sauna, it features saucy column stroking (c. 0.12), mud masks and Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon gazing into each others eyes through an ejaculating fountain. It’s almost as if they had a bet on with OMD, also from Merseyside, to make an even more homoerotic video than their Brideshead-inspired 1981 promo for their dreamy ‘Souvenir’ single.

But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single ‘Calling Your Name’. The pop charts now had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself, entirely accurately, as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”

But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted ‘Victorian values’ were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the ‘Evil Empire’, as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.

The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was probably more often known in the US — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.

Marilyn’s second single, ‘Cry and Be Free’, a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the catchy and ironically prescient ‘You Don’t Love Me’, stalled at number 40 in the U.K. charts. Effectively the career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over before it had begun.

And so, essentially, was new wave, banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing in the U.K. charts in 1984.

Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track ‘Relax’ finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes’, which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with ‘Relax’.

My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also having it’s last big fling. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.

I ended up playing the Smiths on it a great deal — ‘This Charming Man’, with it’s inviting male driver, smooth leather, guitars and yearning, yelping vocals from its awkwardly pretty, skinny lead singer in a woman’s blouse and beads, was released at the end of 1983. Their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’ The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.

In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of 70s glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame now, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s – barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay. Which was only right, seeing as they represented a resistance to much of what pop music became in the latter half of the 80s.

The Smiths were essentially semi-underground new wave – otherwise known as ‘indie’.

A1 Love – The Greatness of The Great North Road

Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire

What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impatient era as the A1?

Well, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the signage rightly has it. And unlike the more popular M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of petering out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shining, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.

For all its butchness, the A1 is also the most glamorous road in Britain, connecting the capitals of four countries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, starting in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flowing up the eastern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splendour of York, once England’s second city, spooling up and over the much-contested border fortress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and finishing with a flourish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand panoramic, kilted sweep of Princes Street.

True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glamour always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.

Above all, the A1, still mostly dual carriageway, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a virtual ‘M’ road built and engineered to connect industrial centres as fast and as boringly as possible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to downgrade the whole of the A1 to motorway were dropped in 1995).

OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lorries labouring up a hill, one overtaking the other at a speed differential of 0.5 MPH. Or during the summer months, those suburban juggernauts of despair – otherwise known as caravans. But nonetheless, and despite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detouring the A1 from the old ‘coaching’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hiding it behind cuttings and another Unwelcome Break.

A lush, lowland Eastern England of market towns and fertile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, country houses and garrisons – and, just outside sleepy Grantham… a roadside sex shop. Try finding one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steaming cooling towers, looming like concrete castles with dragons lurking within – a legacy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.

Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the bloodiest battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists triumphed over the Lancastrians, leaving 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.

If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decisive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the preposterous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final resting place of the father of English history, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hidden from the current A1 route. But as a consolation prize you might be able to fleetingly scope Lumley Castle, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham and now a luxury hotel where travellers can break their journey in turreted style.

Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s famous Angel of the North, welcomes you, wings outstretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the benefit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as locals dub him, is a steely sign commanding you to start paying serious attention, man, pet.

For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western suburbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 frequently narrows and slows to a single lane the better to allow you to enjoy the timeless, undulating landscape, and permit you perhaps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and easily most photogenic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little further on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just beyond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, patron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.

Why ever did they film Lord of the Rings in plain and dull New Zealand?

Over the Tweed and just over the border you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbreviated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs overlooking a shockingly blue North Sea, and on to the glittering Firth of Forth, with the brooding promise of the Highlands beyond – if it’s not raining horizontally again.

But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.

Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak battlefield where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scotland in defiance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly international road again. Possibly with border posts, passport checks and maybe even the occasional border skirmish and raid just like in the good old days.

Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defenders, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.

The Global Glory Hole

Cottaging

Mark Simpson on the enduring allure of anonymous sex in an age of gay marriage and ‘anti-social networking

I was sixteen when saw my first glory hole. Or rather, saw my first filled glory hole. It was in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, a public-spirited, snobbish spa town well-served by shiny Victorian lavatories. The throbbing, fleshy wall-fitting in my tiled cubicle was quite a sight. Glorious, even. Truly an impressive, proud piece of polished plumbing.

Cottaging, or cruising for sex in public lavatories and parks, was once a mainstay of the gay demi monde. It’s easy to see why. When any and all sex between men was still illegal as it was in the UK before the (partial) decriminalisation of 1967, anonymous sex was often the only kind available. It was probably the only sensible kind too since the more your partner knew about you the more you left yourself open to blackmail. Thanks to British municipal pride, toilets were everywhere – and also nowhere: a kind of wordless no man’s land where anything might happen. Much like homosexuality.

The glory hole itself is the ultimate symbol of anonymous ‘no strings’ sex – an erect, disembodied cock sticking through a wall. Even bricks and mortar can’t hold it back. Nameless, shameless desire. As a horny teenager in the early 1980s, when sex with another male was still completely illegal for me – not being over 21 and not in a position to have sex ‘in private’, two key, killjoy stipulations of the 1967 Act – I was very, very interested in what went on in public toilets.

Orton toilet

Joe Orton’s favourite watering hole.

But I never really got the hang of it. Less Joe Orton more sad Captain in Querelle of Brest I preferred to scrutinise the filthy, imploring messages and somewhat optimistic anatomical drawings on the walls. The business of standing around for hours like cheese at four pence pretending to piss was beyond me – I was far too self-conscious already. Plus sex in cubicles seemed foolish: there’s no escape route, either from the rozzers or from the other party.

It was only later, after running away to London and joining the out-and-proud gay world of gay bars and clubs and volunteering for London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard that I discovered my true home – an overgrown corner of Hampstead Heath popular at night with gentlemen having trouble sleeping. The old skool twilight world of the homosexual is where I really belonged. I spent many warm summer evenings there enjoying wordless trysts that were often as romantic as they were anonymous. I also spent many long hours wandering around in ever-expanding circles in the freezing fog in February. Compulsive sex can be pretty compulsive.

As that global glory hole called the internet was to make even clearer. The arrival of online ‘dating’ sites like Gaydar in the late 90s depopulated gay cruising areas like Hampstead Heath – which had already suffered competition from the host of back rooms, sex clubs and gay saunas that opened in London that decade. But now everyone was sat at home logged on with a lob on looking to ‘accom’. Today of course it’s all about Grindr, the mobile gay ‘dating’ app that uses GPS technology to allow you to cruise for locally-sourced cock at Tescos, on the bus or while having dinner with your mum.

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Which has created something that looks, through a vandalised toilet cubicle partition, like a paradox. Now that homosexuality has been completely decriminalised, legal equality and acceptance achieved, same sex marriage is on the way – and most public toilets have been shut or turned into tanning salons – it sometimes seems as if all gay men today are e-cottaging. Constantly.

Some argue that this is a shameful and shame-filled hangover from the period of illegality and hiding – that it’s a form of internalised homophobia preventing gay men from having proper (i.e. monogamous) relationships. This seems to be the thesis of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning 2008 play The Pride, currently running at Trafalgar Studios, London in a new production by Jamie Lloyd. In it a 1950s male couple are driven apart by guilt and repression, while a contemporary gay couple are riven by the ‘self-hating’ ‘addiction’ one of them has to anonymous sex.

Some have gone further and argued that because gay men can get civil partnered or soon, married, they now owe it to society to leave behind their irresponsible lifestyle from an oppressed past, stop letting the side down and ‘grow up’.

Into what, though?

Now, I certainly wouldn’t deny that casual sex can be a bad habit that’s difficult to break – and one that can make having a long-term relationship more difficult. But really only if monogamy is part of the deal. And in my experience most long term gay male relationships are open (though I realise you’re not supposed to say that in front of straight people). Arguably, the always-available culture of anonymous sex, the gaping glory hole, isn’t what stops gay men from having relationships, it’s perhaps what makes many long-term gay relationships possible where otherwise the commitment might be too smothering.

Precisely because sex is so freely and so anonymously available for gay men it is less likely to be the foundation of their relationship – and sex outside the relationship less likely to represent a threat. ‘Darling, I promise you, he meant nothing to me!’ is a line that most gay men don’t need to use – since they probably only know the ‘other woman’ as ‘MassiveMeat69’.

And if I wanted to be really cynical I could say that as far as the penis is concerned there is only one kind of sex and it’s anonymous.

While the general relevance of gay culture for gay people tends to recede as homophobia rapidly falls off and integration speeds up, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the world of anonymous sex persists and in fact flourishes. Like camp it’s the slutty sensibility of a culture of (too much) choice – and an escape from (out-and-proud) identity. After all, Grindr’s logo is a mask. Anti-social networking.

The gay culture of anonymous, or at least ‘no strings’ sex is also something non gays seem very keen to appropriate. Ironically, now that gays have begun to convince much of the Western World they’re ‘just like straight people’ and thus worthy of marriage, straight people seem to be spending all their time dogging, checking their messages on Badoo and deconstructing monogamy.

But I would say that. When it comes to anonymous sex I’m a lifer. When I was in the grip of a pimply hormonal frenzy, gawping at glory holes, scanning the dirty graffiti, or cruising Hampstead Heath, I used to kid myself I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Then later I thought that I wanted love to save me from sex. Nowadays, like many other middle-aged men whose libido is in free-fall, I pray for sex to save me from love.

Mark Simpson’s Kindle Single ‘End of Gays?’ is available to download.

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.

Larry StylinsonLarry 2

They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.

Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that immortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)

TT 1

The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:

“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate…. It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.

Larry kiss

 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”

Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.

A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. Apparently the response was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

Do You Shave Your Chest?

When I joined the British TA infantry back in the late 90s (bit of a long story) and had my medical the (woman) doctor asked a topless me: ‘Do you shave your chest?’ It was still verboten back then to be gay and in the army so I hurriedly said: ‘Er, yes. I do bodybuilding and it shows off the muscle definition better.’

‘Hmm’, she said, sounding unconvinced, and made a note in her file.

How things have changed in the intervening fifteen years. I suspect that Army doctor now quizzes recruits if they DON’T shave their chests, so widespread is body shaving/waxing with young men today. The Bootnecks posing in the recent Royal Marine charity calendar above don’t appear to have an undepilated pumped pectoral between them.

Why do so many men shave their chests now? Because, as I told the sceptical Army doctor, it shows off muscle definition. That’s to say: it shows off. Now that metrosexuality is pretty much ‘normal’, young men think nothing of wanting to be sexy, to be hot. To be PORNO. And what’s the point of going to the gym religiously and spending a fortune on supplements if the world and your mates can’t see the melony fruits of your labours? So scrape that chest fur off, guys! Tits out for the… lads.

Even as they cultivate fashion beards as adorable male accessories men are saving their razors for their chests, abs – and wedding tackle. They want their assets to be easily scoped. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, because no one seems to be listening: men are eagerly objectifying themselves. They want us, all of us, male and female, to see their ‘meat’. And want it.

“Did anyone remember to pack the Veet? My chest stubble is itching something chronic.”

Despite the ascendency of hairless male chests for several years now those smooth chests on the British Lions squad enjoying a group swim on the beach recently caused a stir in some circles. Perhaps because rugby used to be a sport for hairy beer monsters and ‘real men’. But since it went ‘pro’ a while back that has all changed. ‘Rugby player build’ used to be a personal ad euphemism for ‘a bit fat’ but now it tends to mean ‘ripped to buggery’ – professional rugby players are living the Men’s Health dream with their own personal dieticians, fitness trainers and masseurs. Look at how much the England rugby strip has changed in the last decade. It used to flap around in the wind, shapelessly. Now it’s like something a male stripper might wear – towards the end of his act.

England-Away-Rugby-Shirt-Canterbury-2012

And of course some of the tastier and tartier ‘pro’ rugby players have been appearing naked, shaved and oiled for years in the high production low morals Dieux du Stade sporno calendars bought by gay men, straight women – and gay men again.

Though many gays themselves have been re-fetishing chest hair lately, to the point where hirsuteness is now apparently akin to gay godliness. In fact, many gay men seem to want to present themselves as the hairy beer monster real men rugger buggers of yesteryear. The ones that used to chase them down the street.

I still remember the horror of my gay host on a visit to LA a few years back, exclaiming: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!” when he saw me apply a Bic razor to my chest. “No gay man in this town shaves his chest any more!”

But as a hopeless, helpless fan of smooth, classical muscle myself, I’m praying that this is one gay trend that straight men don’t get around to copying.

Living Doll: Marc Jacobs Talks to Mark Simpson

Marc Jacobs talks to Mark Simpson about his Brazilian (ex) porn star boyfriend, foreskins, gay fashion misogyny, turning 50 and being turned into a stuffed toy.

(Originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Man About Town Magazine)

Marc Jacobs is many things. So many things that it would make a lesser Mary giddy.

He’s a fashion label. Three, in fact: The Marc Jacobs Collection, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Little Marc. He’s a range of fragrances. He’s a retail store, with 239 outlets in 60 different countries. He’s the creative director of Louis Vuitton in Paris. He’s a three times winner of the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award and a four times winner of Accessory Designer of the Year.

He’s also a relaxed, 49-year-old American from New York City whose pretty much life-long openness about his sexuality – along with his sustained success – has made him a poster-boy for gay pride, ranked 14th in American gay magazine Out’s 2012 ’Power List’.

Furthermore, Marc Jacobs is, perhaps most importantly in our superficial age, a bona fide global celebrity. Snaps of him socialising with friends and boyfriends appear in newspapers, mags and on gossip sites around the world: even the pages of even the UK’s notoriously gay unfriendly Daily Mail. Instantly recognisable, Marc Jacobs the man and the brand is a familiar part of our visual culture.

In keeping with that culture Marc Jacobs is also, nowadays, a body. A few years back, with the help of ruthless diets and religiously regular gym routines – and, no doubt, some of the hunkiest personal fitness trainers in town – he transformed himself from a chubby, nerdy, pallid chap grazing on junk food into almost fat-free, pumped, tanned, tattooed beefcake.

And now – dwarfing all his other achievements – he’s also a stuffed toy.

Mark Simpson: Word is you’ve been turned into a ‘Muscle Man Marc’ doll.

Marc Jacobs: I have. By the makers of South Park.

It’s every gay man’s dream. How did that come about?

Well, I have quite a few tattoos and two of them are of toys that belong to the Cartman character in South Park. And I guess I’ve been photographed so many times with those tattoos that it came to the attention of Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] who created the series, so as a sort of homage they made me into a doll, a toy in Cartman’s room. And of course I found that to be the greatest honour I’ve ever received! I have such great respect for them and I think the show is so clever, so well-observed.

As is your doll. It’s a very fetching toy.

Thank you!

But do you ever worry that people might be sticking pins in those dolls? People can be very jealous. I know I am.

[Laughs] Y’know, I sometimes read comments by people online to things and think, well, I don’t know these people and they don’t know me and so everybody has a right to their opinion and if it makes them feel better about me by putting me down, then fine.

Did you find, when you transformed yourself a few years back, that there was hissing as well as applause?

Yeah, like with everything y’know, some people said we like the old, sort of geeky Marc. But I got tons of letters from people saying that I encouraged them to go on diets and encouraged them to go to the gym. I started it for health reasons—I have ulcerative colitis and my nutritionist encouraged me to change my diet. I started going to the gym and started to feel better and look better—and anything that makes me feel better I want more of! Lots of people wrote to me to say that my story gave them hope that they could change as well. That it was never too late to change one’s diet or one’s lifestyle or pick up a habit that’s nourishing and positive.

What’s your current body fat percentage? Trending up or down? It was an eye-popping four per cent last time I read about it.

It’s probably about eight per cent at the moment. I missed a few weeks at the gym because of preparing the [Louis Vuitton] show for Paris Fashion Week. When I go back to New York it will go down again, probably to about five per cent very soon.

That’s a great relief!

Yeah—I’m sure people all over the world will be thrilled to know that!

There should probably be a website where we can check up on your BF percentage in real time.

Oh God, I hope there’s never any such thing!

Oh, it will come, it will come. I hear there’s one bad habit you’ve not been able to ditch: smoking.

Yeah, that’s true, unfortunately.

If smoking made you fat do you think you’d stop tomorrow?

I don’t know… I don’t know. I mean, I tried to quit smoking before. I’ve had periods of success—the longest was seven months. I really do enjoy smoking and as bad as I know it is for me I just can’t seem to stay quit.

Everyone should have at least one vice.

Well, I guess…

Though you seem to have a weakness for tattoos also. Any recent ones?

I had the ‘Muscle Man Marc’ doll tattooed on my right forearm a few months ago. That was the last one.

What’s the current tally?

I think we’re up to 34.

Some people like to agonise over their choice of tattoos.

That’s not something I agonise over. I mean, I can agonise over whether we use black and white or red and white or both in a collection, but I certainly don’t agonise over my tattoo choices. They’re very spontaneous.

Is the doll anatomically correct?

Well, it’s in pants.

And the pants don’t come off?

No. So I guess the answer’s no.

Ah, but since the pants don’t come off we’ll never know for sure. Do you remember Billy the gay doll?

Yeah, I do.

Did you ever have one?

No, I didn’t.

He was very anatomically correct. Or incorrect.

Yes, I remember!

What would you say was your favourite part of the male body?

Lips. I love a full pair of lips.

They’re an oft-overlooked male attribute.

I don’t overlook them!

Are you a passionate snogger, Mr Jacobs?

Yeah, that’s what gets the rest of me going!

Still dating Harry Louis, the humpy Brazilian porn star you were snapped with on the beach in Rio recently?

Oh yeah! He’s my boyfriend.

Harry looks to have been blessed in the lip departmentand everywhere else.

Oh yeah! In all the right places—and it all works very well! He’s also a really lovely person. He’s nothing to complain about on any level, inside and out. He’s a total sweetheart. He’s a very sexy, hunky man.

I believe you. I can hear you getting turned on talking about him. Did you see him ‘in action’ before you met?

No. I met him through a friend of mine. I’d actually never seen him before.

And how did you feel about your boyfriend working as a porn star?

Oh, I thought he was very good at it! [Laughs] He’s given it up now though. It’s very disappointing for some of his fans, but I’m very happy about it. He told me that he wanted to give it up and have a monogamous relationship. So he’s been busy exploring what he wants to do with his life and has been working at a club called The Roof Gardens in London. He loves to cook and has been thinking about opening up a small café or restaurant. He’s also very good at cooking, by the way.

He has lips like those and is great in the kitchen as well?

Yeah!

Where did I put those pins?? Oh here they are: you once said “I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfectthey are much more interesting.” Mr Louis doesn’t look terribly imperfect from where I’m panting.

That quote was in regard to fashion—me talking about things that inspire me to make clothes. And Harry, or Eddie as I call him, has his imperfections. I wouldn’t say they were physical—he has this quirky character, and what people see on the screen isn’t who he really is. It’s a persona.

People have trouble understanding that porn isn’t real life. I certainly do.

I’d say I hit the jackpot with Eddie. But I’ve also had skinny boyfriends. Shorter boyfriends. Darker skinned boyfriends. Lighter skinned boyfriends and boyfriends of all shapes and sizes—I don’t really have a type. Eddie is pretty much physically perfect and sexy but he has his own quirky personality and is super sweet and not at all what people perceive him to be on screen.

As an American dating a Brazilian, what’s best? Cut or uncut?

Um, I don’t really have a preference…

Speaking as an uncut Brit, Americans tend to either run for the hills shrieking or are maybe a bit too interested in that flap of skin.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love it! But I just don’t have a particular preference.

Okay. So you’ve got yourself a porn star body…

… I wouldn’t say that!

Well, I would. And you’ve got yourself an ex-porn star boyfriend. So… when is the Marc Jacobs sex tape coming out?

Well if there is one, it’ll just be for me—it will not be for public consumption!

How old fashioned! Am I right in thinking that your mother’s soft porn magazines turned you on to the male form?

Yeah, it was Playgirl and Viva. I found them in her room. I saw the naked men in them and thought ‘Wow! That looks good!’

What was the look back then?

Hairy chests, moustaches, that kind of thing.

And big hair?

Well, blow-dried.

The camp counsellor you’ve mentioned in the past you had your first crush on. Did he look like a Viva model?

Probably. A younger version.

So he was the first time you kind of transferred what you were feeling for the Viva models to an actual guy?

Yeah!

And nothing came of that?

No. I was quite young. I was nine.

Oh! Yes, that is quite young. How old were you when you did do something about it?

Thirteen, I think.

That’s still quite young. You must have had an adventurous spirit from an early age.

Oh, I did!

How did it go?

It was pretty awkward. It was with a friend who was staying over. But it was a first experience, I guess.

Would you say that things have changed a lot for gay people since you were a kid?

I think so. We can get married now.

Why are there so many gay men at the top of the fashion business?

I don’t know. There are plenty of straight men in fashion as well. There are also plenty of straight women in fashion. I wouldn’t really single gay men out. The people I admire most in fashion are straight women. Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli. I consider them to be the most important designers in the history of fashion—the most inventive and creative, and they’re all women. So there you go.

What about the ‘misogynist’ brush that some people like to tar all gay designers with?

I don’t think we get accused of that so much with what we do. First of all there’s no real vulgarity and there isn’t that kind of misogynous approach. We don’t bind women or objectify them sexually. I don’t think the style of the clothes we make would put me in that category. More appropriate perhaps in other cases…

You’re not going to name any names?

No.

Damn! What’s your secret to surviving the queer curse of Paris fashion houses? Galliano and McQueen have come and gone at Dior and Givenchy, but you remain in command at Louis Vuitton, where you’ve been since 1997.

I think I’m just very passionate about making clothes and I guess if there is a secret it’s having a very good team of people who also share that passion and natural curiosity for taking on something new each season, which keeps it sort of fresh and surprising and challenging for us. As long as the will is there and you work with a group of creative and able people then you can continue to produce season after season.

Is being a fashion designer a lonely business? It can look that way sometimes, to us civilians.

No, I don’t feel that it is, not for me. Every day I spend a lot of time with people I admire and respect and actually really like—and hopefully like me as well. Both for Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. So I’m not alone. I also have a great group of friends whom I’m inspired by, although I don’t get to see nearly as much of them as I’d like to. So I wouldn’t say my life is very lonely.

What do you think of the presidential candidates’ presentation? Any style tips for them?

I’m just going to say that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. I think he did a great job as President and I’d love to see him serve again. That’s all I’ll say.

C’mon! I’m trying to get you to be shallow here!

I know people make a big deal about what they look like, but to me it really doesn’t matter. The qualities I look for in a President or a First Lady are an ability to run the country and be intelligent and honest. I really don’t give a toss about what they wear!

I however did give a toss or two over what you and Eddie were wearing to the beach in those Rio snapsSpeedos. The much-maligned anatomically-correct Ozzie beachwear looked spiffing on both of you.

I only get the chance to go to the beach once, maybe twice, a year and I love to catch the sun, so wearing knee-length board-shorts seems counterproductive. I like to lie on the beach and tan wearing as little as possible. I like to be as close to naked as I can be.

And God bless you for that. Do you have any plans for your half-century this April?

Currently I’m planning to go to Rio and spend a nice time with Eddie. I’m not having a big party or anything like that. I don’t like celebrating birthdays. I know everyone says 50 is a big deal but it’s just another year as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t want to make a fuss of it.

Either way, in or out of Speedos, we can be sure you won’t be looking 50 in April.

God, I hope not!

This interview was given at the end of last year. Here’s what Marc looked at hitting 50 and the beach last week with Harry in Rio.

 Special thanks to Philip Utz

Diet Cock: Coca Cola’s Porno Promo

As an avid voyeur of the media’s marketing of the male body I meant to write about this new Diet Coke advert ‘Gardener’ when it first strutted its stuff a a month or so back, but it completely slipped my mind – like a chilled, beading soft drink can in a lubed hand. Apologies. Obviously there’s not enough NutraSweet in my bloodstream.

For its 30th anniversary Diet Coke, a sticky, fizzy, calorie-free brown drink aimed at women (Coke Zero is the ‘male’ equivalent – the girly word ‘diet’ replaced by a manly statistic), has resurrected its most memorable campaign trope, The Diet Coke Hunk.

Back in the 1990s Diet Coke succeeded in connecting itself with the emergence of female sexual assertiveness – and also of course emerging male submissiveness, objectification and commodification: after all, a ‘hunk’ is a faceless, nameless, if appetising thing. In doing so Diet Coke made itself modern and tasty.

Naturally, everyone in the new ad, now set in the brave new, artificially sweetened, colour-enhanced metrosexy world that Diet Coke helped usher in, is slim, young and attractive. No one here needs to do anything as vulgar as actually diet. Diet Coke is a lifestyle, a sensibility – certainly not a utility or a necessity. The women look like they’re taking a break from shooting on location for the British version of Sex in the City. Or at least, the British version of Daughters of Sex in the City.

The Hunk is a blandly attractive boy with a fashion beard – he could easily be a contestant on Take Me Out, and probably has been. As usual in Diet Coke Land The Hunk is labouring away in some menial, manual capacity while the middle class women, relaxing from a higher vantage point (remember ‘Diet Coke Break‘?), enjoy literally looking down on him. He cuts the grass; they sit on it. He works; they watch.

When one of them rolls a can of the product down the hill towards the sweating proletarian this seems like a hostile act. It could after all have gone into the spinning lawn mower blades and caused damage and injury. Perhaps even scarred that pretty face!

Instead it comes to rest on the side of The Hunk’s mower. When the thirsty, sweaty chap opens the can it sprays him with the contents – in slow, money shot motion. The women from their lofty, grassy vantage point find this hilarious and it seems as if this had been the plan all along. Maybe they even shook the can before rolling it down the hill. The minxes.

So now our man of toil is covered in ejaculated stickiness. And our triumphant, thoroughly modern women have had their fun.

However, when he takes his t-shirt off and wrings it out, flashing his abs and carefully flexing his large pectoral muscles, the women’s jaws drop. The look they give The Hunk’s body is one of total, gob-smacked longing and very unladylike lust.

The Hunk seems entirely aware of his effect on the women and in fact this is both his revenge and his reward. He smiles a knowing smile over his shoulder as he heads off, continuing his mowing with a spring in his step. Objectification is a kind of gratification.

This moment reminded me of the corny line from Magic Mike: “You have the cock. They don’t.” No wonder the woman who rolled the can down the hill quickly presses her lips to the can in her hand.

As the short ‘teaser’ below makes pornographically clear, with its close ups on undressing Hunk’s belt buckle and Voyeur Lady’s lips, Diet Coke is quite shamelessly, quite explicitly marketing itself as the calorie free, carbonated phallus.

 

The Swishy Villainy & Psychodrama of Skyfall

Mark Simpson fondles the pecs and thighs of James Bond’s latest ‘outing’

When at their first meeting in Skyfall a rather forwards Raul Silva, played by a bleached-blond Javier Bardem, takes caddish advantage of James Bond’s/Daniel Craig’s indisposition – tied as he is to a chair – running his hands over 007’s craggy face, ripped chest and powerful thighs, and flirtatiously-threatingly suggesting “Well, first time for everything, Bond…” you could feel the audience in my local cinema freeze.

And when Bond delivered the now-famous laconic retort “What makes you think it’s my first time?” you could hear the audience’s sharp intake of breath over the THX sound system. Wot?! James Bond a bender!?!

Oh bloody hell!, I wanted to shout out, at Raul, the audience and the world in general. Has ANYONE been paying attention? Of COURSE it’s not Bond’s first time! In Casino Royale Bond tried a spot of CBT with Mr Big and his knotted rope, while tied to a RIM CHAIR!!

Casino Royale rebooted and updated the tired, terminally naff Bond brand in 2006 in the pectorally prominent form of Craig, a man whose appointment to the role initially provoked a chorus of complaints from Bond fanboys about his blondness, smoothness and the fact he kissed a man in another movie.

Craig’s Bond proved a sensation on screen, one which finally realised the tarty promise of Sean Connery’s beefily glamorous, disturbing sexuality in 1962’s Dr No – long since forgotten in the sexless knitwear catalogue model Bonds of the 70s-90s. By reconnecting Bond to the metrosexy revolution in masculine aesthetics, the male desire to be desired, that the original Bond movies anticipated but which had been left to other movies to exploit, Casino delivered us Bond as a 21st Century fully-fledged, self-objectifying sex-object. Bond as his own Bond girl. Hence Craig’s Ursula Andress in Speedos moment.

So when Silva has a good feel of Bond’s pecs and thighs in Skyfall he’s just doing what pretty much everyone, male and female, has wanted to do since Casino Royale.

If Casino Royale outed Bond’s omnisexual tartiness, Skyfall, which is at least as good a movie – effacing the mortifying memory of Quantum of Solace – outs the queerness of the Bond villain. Someone who was often implicitly coded queer (those cats, those cigarette holders, those hulking goons), partly as a way of making unmarried, shaken-not-stirred Bond seem straighter. After all those decades of coding, Bardem’s openly flirtatious swishy villainy seems exhilirating. It’s certainly a great pleasure to watch.

Though, like Bond, Silva isn’t actually gay. As a result of the speculation surrounding Bond’s ‘shocking’ admission of his bi-curious past in Skyfall Craig was asked in an interview recently whether he thinks there could ever be a ‘gay James Bond’. “No,” he replied, “because he’s not gay. And I don’t think Javier [Bardem’s] character is either – I think he’d fuck anything.”

Much like Bond, then.

What’s ‘gay’ about Skyfall isn’t the thigh-squeezing, or even Daniel Craig’s circuit party tits (which I’m happy to report are regularly on display again) it’s the glorious camp excess. “Was that meant for me?” Bond asks Silva during an underground pursuit, after he detonates a bomb behind our hero by remote control, blowing a hole in the roof of the vault. “No,” deadpans Silva. “But this is.” Right on cue a tube train falls through the hole, headed for Bond, while Silva disappears up a ladder.

Some film critics complained that this scene is ‘over the top’. This makes me wonder: a) What kind of movie franchise they think Bond is, and b) Whether they have any sense of humour at all.

The whole premise of Skyfall is of course pretty camp: that Silva, a former ‘favourite’ agent of M’s is going to so much trouble – hacking MI6, stealing, decrypting and publishing lists of secret Nato agents, blowing up the MI6 building, personally storming the Houses of Parliament dressed as a David Walliams character – just to get his own back on M (played by gay icon Judi Dench) for dropping him.

That’s some hissy fit.

Fortunately camp isn’t code here for ‘crap’. It’s a testament to Bardem’s skill as an actor and Sam Mendes direction that he’s vividly, entrancingly menacing. He steals every scene he’s in. Actually, his hair steals every scene he’s in. What’s more, you really feel, perhaps for the first time, that this Bond villain has a point. After all, what kind of fucked up family is MI6? Particularly since in the opening scene of the movie Bond is betrayed too – badly wounded and nearly killed after M orders another MI6 agent to take a dodgy shot at the baddie Bond is battling (atop a moving train, of course). ‘M’ is for ‘Mother’ – bad Mother.

Skyfall is very queer psychodrama – delving deep into the twisted family romance of MI6 and the orphan Bond’s quasi incestuous devotion to M. Silva may be on a deliciously queenie rampage, but we all know that it’s Dame Judi who is the real (Virgin) Queen. When Craig appeared in that embarrassing clip for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics this Summer it was quite clear to everyone that constitutional monarch Elizabeth Windsor was Judi’s mere understudy. M has the power of life and death, after all.

Silva’s first scene with Bond – ‘Do you like my island Mr Bond?’ – is gripping, and not just in a groping sort of way. But the scene where he meets M and denounces her crimes and invites her to gaze upon her handiwork trumps it as a piece of pure theatre. Again, it’s deliberately overwrought – but then, so is any family romance. Even the ruthless, steely M is clearly affected by this confrontation with her aborted boy toy.

Perhaps because there’s not enough Bardem in it, the shoot-em up final reel is a bit of an anti-climax after the emotional tube-train crash of the first couple of hours. Even in a Bond film as Freudian as this one it is too symbolic for its own good. More like a bad dream than a finale, Bond and M – and an ancient Albert Finney – are holed up in his family estate in the Scottish Highlands, which he hasn’t visited since his father died when he was a boy. His buried past, in other words.

The Gothic, mouldering pile is called ‘Skyfall’ – a name which is possibly intended to bring to mind God’s favourite, Lucifer, being cast out of heaven. Sure enough, Silva, the agent who was cast out of MI6 by M, arrives with his goons and start shooting the place up in the kind of pyrotechnic assault we’ve seen in a hundred other movies.

Though as with the rest of Skyfall, the final reel is beautifully lit. The attack begins at dusk (Lucifer is the ‘evening star’) and the light progressively turns bluer until it is as dark as death, the only light the hellish orange of Bond’s ancestral home aflame. Like the family romance itself, Skyfall is suffused with nostalgia. Nostalgia for the Bond franchise (it’s a half century since Dr No was released). Nostalgia for 1960s aesthetics. Nostalgia for Britain and Britishness. For the Mother Country. And mother-love.

Heavily pregnant with symbolism, Bond and his Secret Service mother drive to their Highland honeymoon from hell in his Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5 he’s kept in a London lock-up, presumably since the 1960s. On the way he displays what Freud would call his ‘ambivalence’ by jokingly threatening M with the ejector seat, fingering the red button on his gear stick. Of course, Bond never repudiates his mother-love and remains true to Judi.

However, it won’t be giving too much away to say that Skyfall does finally press that button on 007’s behalf.

This review was originally written for the adult site Nightcharm

Does Magic Mike Have Anything To Stick Himself With?

Magic Mike – the money shot.

The animated gif above will save you £8 and 109 minutes of disappointment.

Yes, I’ve done my invert duty and been to see Magic Mike. Which, according to The New York Times, gay men are ‘flocking’ to see in numbers not seen since Brokeback Mountain.

Even if they’re not all as jaded as me I think they’re going to be very disappointed. And not because in Magic Mike gay or bisexual men don’t exist, even as a famously generously tipping audience for male stripping – except as a punchline. In one ‘hilarious’ scene Alex Pettyfer’s uptight sister thinks for a hairy moment he might be gay because he’s shaving his legs. Phew! He’s not gay. He’s a male stripper!

No the betrayal is much, much worse than any of that. And judging by how quickly the mostly female audience in my cinema auditorium stopped giggling and having fun it’s not just The Gays who are going to feel betrayed.

Magic Mike just doesn’t deliver the goods. The junk stays in the trunks. It’s a 110 minute prick-tease without any pricks and very little tease. Most unforgivably of all, this male stripper movie – starring Channing Tatum – wants to be taken seriously. It thinks it has a plot.

And the plot is… another fucking Hollywood morality tale. Will Tatum manage to escape the sleazy, druggy, boys-together world of male stripping and Alex Pettyfer’s winsome grin and end up with his judgey, bossy sister, Cody Horn?

Who cares?

Especially since there’s not nearly enough sleaze on display. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored. Oh, yes, I remember now. Watching Brokeback Mountain.

Fatally, this stripper movie has no sense of timing. Not just in the literally pointless strip routines. Magic Mike suffers from perhaps the worst case of premature ejaculation in cinema history. Two minutes into the film you get the money shot – two seconds of Tatum’s smooth bubble-butt in all its firm, bouncy glory heading for his en-suite in digital Panavision. Which is very nice.

But that, as they say, is a wrap.

Except you’ve got another 108 minutes to go. Another 108 minutes in which as far as I can remember you never see Tatum’s ass properly again. In this movie about male stripping and the commodification of the male body. Given that you can see Tatum’s bouncy ass scene for free in a trailer for the movie it’s the con of Captain America all over again – but even more of rip off. The wrong kind of rip off.

It goes without saying that you never even glimpse his cock. Floppy or otherwise. Or even a dangly bollock. It is, after all, Hollywood, and while Tatum may have worked as a male stripper in the past and worked that past to get where he is, he is now a Proper Hollywood Star and Proper Hollywood Stars don’t show you their cocks. Because that would be low class. Especially in a move about male stripping.

And apart from a glimpse of a couple of silhouettes of clearly prosthetic penises you don’t see anyone else’s cock, either, floppy or otherwise. Magic Mike is essentially a movie about cockless male strippers. Male stripping with no stripping. Which could have been interesting in an avant-garde, sadistic sort of way. But of course, it’s really not that sort of movie.

Maybe I underestimate the director Steven Soderbergh. Maybe he decided to ruin his career by deliberately making a crowd-pleasing summer movie that didn’t please anyone.

A more likely explanation however is that Soderbergh was frantically trying not to scare straight male punters. And safely sublimated homoerotic sub-plots aside, he does work overtime in this movie to reassure that the male strippers are all a) straight and b) dudes. But if he was pandering to straight men he failed there too. Straight men search online for pictures of (big) dick as much as they do for pussy. They are going to be at least as disappointed as everyone else. Except maybe lesbians.

What’s going on here is yet another instance of the puritannical American Phalliban at work. Protecting the sanctity and power of the phallus by making sure the cock is never shown in public. After all, no matter how freakish, the cock never lives up to the promise of the phallus. Even if Magic Mike had the balls to show us… balls it would still have been something of an anti-climax. As I put it in Male Impersonators back in 1994 (which, let’s face it, is really the era when Magic Mike is set):

‘The myth of male strip­ping mes­merises pre­cisely because it con­tra­dicts itself with every dis­carded item… No mat­ter how freak­ish his gen­i­tal attrib­utes, no mat­ter how craftily engorged and arranged with rings and elas­tic bands, no mat­ter how fran­ti­cally it is waved and wag­gled, the stripper’s penis, once naked, never lives up to the promise of the phal­lus: the cli­mac­tic finale of the strip is… an anti-climax.’

Femininity is traditionally seen and represented in Hollywood movies as ‘masquerade’. The clothes, the hair, the breasts, the heels, the make-up all stand in for the ‘missing’ phallus. Masculinity meanwhile is meant to just be there. Because men have the phallus. Women appear. Men act. Or so the traditional reasoning went.

But Magic Mike, because it’s a cockless movie about male stripping, is, inadvertently, a good if boring example of masculinity as masquerade. With thongs and leather and cop uniforms and oiled tanned pecs and really bad, unsexy dance routines standing in for the phallus. A kind of male Showgirls, without the camp or the fun. Or the ‘show’. There’s a scene where Tatum is dancing dressed in a thong, a SWAT cap and black webbing ammunition pouches over his torso. It looks like a butch basque.

Perhaps because it can’t show us dick, and because it’s trying to reassure an imagined straight male punter, Magic Mike does though keep ramming down our throats that the men have cocks and women don’t – and is mostly unable to negotiate women’s active, assertive sexuality, something that of course the commodification of cocks so characteristic of today’s culture is based on.

By way of a pep talk Matthew McConaughey, who plays (with real relish) the owner of the male strip club, likes to ask his male dancers: “Who’s got the cock? You do. They don’t.”

Or as Tatum, dressed as a cop in the now famous opening scene of the main trailer says to a nervous sorority girl he’s about to frisk:

Mike: You don’t have anything sharp on you that I can stick myself with, do you?
Kim: No.
Mike: Good. ‘Cause I do!
[rips off pants, women scream]

But does he? After all, we only have his word for it. And anyway, those words are highly unreliable. Don’t his words actually tell a different story to the one the movie is telling us? Don’t they say either:

a) I have a penis large enough to fuck myself with – please allow me to demonstrate

or

b) Stand back ladies and watch me use my night stick on myself!

Sadly, he doesn’t do either, of course. That’s an entirely different and much more watchable movie. One that I suspect we might have been able to see if Channing Tatum hadn’t had the misfortune to become a Hollywood star, and instead of being condemned to theatrical releases on the big screen had graduated from stripping in South Florida clubs to live shows on our PC screens.

magic-mike-1

The New Bromanticism

Just over half of British and American men are currently in or have had a ‘bromance’ in the past according to a survey, not by Dr Kinsey, but by Badoo (‘the world’s largest social network for meeting new people’).

The Badoo press release – issued on Valentine’s Day last week – claims that the survey of 2000 men ‘reveals the extent to which British men have embraced the “bromance” phenomenon’. We’ll get to that bit later.

What’s immediately and gratifyingly clear is that the Badoo survey doesn’t insist, as many would and have done, very loudly, that a bromance is a close friendship between two STRAIGHT men – no gayers or gayness allowed, thank you very much.

Instead, Badoo defines bromance as ‘a close platonic relationship with someone of the same sex’. And we all know about that Plato guy and those Greeks….

Badoo’s British respondents listed these famous male friendships in their ‘top ten’:

1. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson

2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

3. Ant and Dec

4. Buzz and Woody (Toy Story)

5. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley

6. George Clooney and Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven)

7. Gavin and Smithy (Gavin and Stacey)

8. Joey and Chandler (Friends)

9. Frodo and Sam (Lord of the Rings)

10. Simon and Will (The Inbetweeners)

Some of these male friendships are more platonic than others. You don’t have to be a slash fiction writer to see something slightly erotic in, for example, Frodo and Sam’s smouldering on-screen relationship – or Newman and Redford’s. I have to say I was pleased but a little surprised that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made it into second place (that movie was released 43 years ago) – I suppose there must have been a lot of respondents as middle-aged as me.

It’s a crying shame that Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin didn’t make the list – but then the era that they reigned supreme as the world’s favourite ‘platonic’ male lovers was well over half a century ago. And they were probably too explicit for today’s tastes.

It’s also a shame also that the great, passionate early twentieth century psychology male double act of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was ignored. But I suppose that the recently-released A Dangerous Method didn’t pull in quite as many punters as Sherlock Holmes 2. And besides, it has a unhappy ending: Freud and Jung have a very messy divorce.

But Freud and Jung personify in an oddly neurotic fashion the way no ‘bromance’ is ever quite ‘pure’ of libidinal impulses: Freud famously fainted more than once in the presence of his anointed successor the young Jung, blaming it on some ‘unresolved homosexual attachment’ – the cigar aficionado considered homoerotic attraction the basis of all male bonding. And although the split occurred because Jung rejected Freud’s all-embracing libido-theory, emphasising instead ‘spirituality’, it was Jung who had the major nervous breakdown after they parted.

It was the non-Freudian Michel Foucault who, as I recall, attributed the emergence of ‘the homosexual’ to the decline in the institution of male friendship. Foucault was immensely interested in friendship:

‘As far back as I remember, to want guys was to want relations with guys. That has always been important for me. Not necessarily in the form of a couple but as a matter of existence: how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences? What is it to be “naked” among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie?’

(Michel Foucault, ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’)

For Foucault, experimental friendship and ‘new relations’ was what male homosexuality was for. Or at least the bit of it that he was interested in that wasn’t about leather and whips.

The arrival of companionate marriage in the early twentieth century left increasingly little room for close male friendships – friendships which, along with greater physical affection such as kissing and holding hands, occassional passionate declarations of love, and also the custom of chums sharing bed (see Abe Lincoln), had meant that the difference between a sexual relationship and a non sexual one was largely invisible to the world. Close male friendships cover the pre-gay past with a blanket of discretion.

Perhaps the popularity of ‘bromance’ even just as a buzzword represents a resurgence of interest in close male friendship, as the medical, legal and social force of ‘the homosexual’ and for that matter ‘the heterosexual’ declines. A quarter of the Badoo respondents admit to having ‘the most fun they have with anyone’ with their bromance partner, and ‘just like Holmes and Watson’ over one in ten are ‘often mistaken to be more than friends’, while 10% of them claim to get stick from their partner for it.

Marriage is also now in steep decline, of course. Fewer and fewer people are getting hitched and if and when they do it’s usually much later than their parents or grandparents. (According to Badoo, 28% of single British men are currently in a bromance, with this figure dropping to 10% for marrieds and 15% for co-habiters.)

Before the Second World War, when working class men tended to get married in their late twenties and early thirties, the now-defunct institution of ‘trade’ gloriously filled the gap between adolescence and domesticity. And despite the name, the traffic between ‘normal’ working class lads and queer gentlemen was not always commercial or hedonistic – surprisingly often it developed into a long term and emotionally close friendship.

After being initially rather sceptical, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my attitude towards ‘bromance’. Over time it seems that the ‘romance’ part of ‘bromance’ is becoming less irritatingly ironic – and the ‘bro’ part less annoyingly fratty. And also less insistently hetty. In this Badoo survey at least, ‘bromance’ cuts right across ‘sexuality’.

Like that other annoying word ‘metrosexual’, ‘bromance’ seems to be potentially acting as a solvent of gay/straight boundaries, giving men whatever their sexuality permission to express stuff that they otherwise might not. Facilitating and encouraging close, emotional friendships between two straight men. Or between gay and straight men. Or straight and bi men. Or maybe even between – one day, in the far distant Utopian future – gay men.

The recently launched ‘Bromance’ app, a location-based network ‘that helps you organize activities with friends and nearby people with shared interests’ was mocked by many (including me until I found out more about it). The people behind the app, like Badoo, don’t insist on the heterosexuality of their ‘bros’ – and go one step further in suggesting that ‘bros’ don’t have to be male, either.

Many commenters on gay blogs seemed to think the Bromance app would be only used by ‘closeted gay men’ seeking sex on the ‘downlow’ – while the Brobible agreed, ‘aggressively opposing’ this ‘men seeking men’ app for polluting the heterosexual purity of their bro-ness.

I’ve no idea whether it will be popular or not, but the gayist and bro-ist scorn which greeted the Bromance app seems to be precisely down to the way it might facilitate new kinds of platonic friendships. And new kinds of sexual relationships. Under a blanket of smart-phone discretion. And we won’t know which is which.

Despite all the name-calling, it’s precisely the inability to define what’s going on or the people taking part that is the ‘problem’. I suspect Foucault would have been one of the first to download the Bromance app, in his  fervid search for ‘experimental friendships’. I get the feeling Michel was quite a lonely guy. (Or ‘FUCKING LOSER’ as the Brobible would put it.)

The new technology of information and communication and the new social networks it has spawned seem to be enabling new kinds of relations and experimentation away from judging eyes – and exploiting it, of course. At the same time as perhaps making us all lonelier.

A Badoo spokesperson explained why they commissioned their survey:

‘Everyone always talks about relationships and dating – but actually a bromance buddy is also really important to men. For the 44% of British men that have never had a bromance – Badoo.com offers them the chance to meet someone that’s like minded – whether that’s for bromance or romance.’

It’s not clear where Badoo found their respondents from, and I’m not sure their findings are terribly scientific. I’m not even sure what Badoo is, to be honest. But something is definitely afoot with male friendship.

Another survey published this week should certainly be taken very seriously indeed for what it says about the yearning of British men for close, intimate friendship. According to Travelodge, half of the men they asked admitted they still have a teddy bear from their childhood. A quarter admitted to sleeping with their teddy bear when ‘on business trips’. While 15% confessed they ‘treat their teddy as their best friend’ and ‘share their intimate secrets with their bear’.

Does bearmance stand in for bromance with British men? Or t’other way round?

 Tip: Lee Kynaston & Topak

Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

The Naked Civil Servant is the best and funniest TV drama ever made. And I’m sorry, but it’s a scientific fact.

And like its subject it could only have been made in the UK. Even if Crisp said he hated England – and he did, over and over again.

So many lines in Philip Mackie’s superb screenplay for the Thames TV adaptation glitter like, well, the icy aphorisms that Crisp filled his eponymous autobiography with. But it was Hurt’s breakthrough performance as Crisp which is most historic: rendering Crisp, as Quentin himself acknowledged – and welcomed – something of an understudy to Hurt’s Crisp for the rest of his life.

The actual, quasi-existing Crisp, born Dennis Charles Pratt in Sutton, Surrey in 1908, sometimes sounded by this stage (he was nearly 70 when the drama aired) like a vintage car tyre losing air ve-ry slow-ly. And was almost as immobile. Hetero dandy Hurt injected a kind of rakishness – a hint of phallicism, even – to Crisp’s defiantly passsssive persssssona that came across rather more invigorating and sexy than he actually was. Hurt rendered Crisp rock ‘n’ roll when he probably wasn’t even up for a waltz. When Hurt repeatedly intoned Crisp’s Zen-like answer to the world and Other People and Desire in general – ‘If you like’ – it sounded slightly more aggressive than passive.

(And for me, Hurtian Crisp was further improved by what I shall call Hoyleian-Hurtian Crisp: I met the performance artist David Hoyle in the early 80s when we were both teenage runaways to London’s bedsit-land. He would perform key moments from TNCS mid-conversation, but always succeeded in making these impromptu excerpts sound as if they were flashbacks to his earlier life. Which, since he grew up a sensitive boy in working class Blackpool in the 1970s watching a lot of telly, they were.)

TNCS, both the book and the dramatisation, is criminally funny precisely because so much of what Hurt/Crisp says – or declaims – is so shockingly true.

The line whispered delicately in the ear of the leader of a 1930s queer bashing gang is now almost a cliche, but still has hilarious force: ‘“If I were you I’d bugger off back to Hoxton before they work out you’re queer.” Cue 1920s style intertitle:

Some roughs are really queer, and some queers are really rough.

Crisp’s truths, particularly about human relationships, are the truths told by someone who has nothing to lose – largely because they’ve already lost everything to the bailiffs of despair. This is the ‘nakedness’ of the Civil Servant.

Because it was one of the first TV dramas to depict a self-confessed and unapologetic – flaunting, even – homosexual TNCS has been frequently misrepresented as a ‘gay drama’. But Crisp’s sexuality is not really what TNCS is about or in fact what Crisp was about.

To a degree it is about being ‘out and proud’, or at least determined to inflict oneself on the world, but not so much as a homosexual, and certainly not as ‘a gay’, in the modern, respectable, American sense of the word. It’s not even, thankfully, a plea for tolerance. Rather it’s a portrayal of the heroic self-sufficiency of someone who decided to stand apart from society and its values, henna their hair and work as a male street prostitute – and then, lying bruised in the gutter, turn a haughty, unsentimental but piercingly funny eye back on a world which regards him as the lowest form of life. It’s the blackest and cheekiest kind of comedy – which is to say: the only kind.

‘I am an effeminate homo-sex-u-alll’, declared Crisp to the Universe, over and over again. And the Universe had no choice but to agree. By being utterly abject Crisp forced the Universe to do precisely as he instructed. A blueprint for celebrity that was to be repeated many, many times by others before his death in 1999 and even more times after – though usually rather less wittily and with less jaunty headgear.

Crisp added that as an effeminate homosexual he was imprisoned inside an exquisite paradox, like some kind of ancient insect trapped in amber: attracted to masculine males – the famous Great Dark Man – he cannot himself be attracted to a man who finds him, another male, attractive because then they cannot be The Great Dark Man any more. Hence the famous, Death-of-God declaration in TNCS, after many, many mishaps and misrecognitions: ’”There. Is. No. Great. Dark. Man!“’

Strictly 19th century sexologically speaking, Mr Crisp was probably more of a male invert than a homosexual and often said that he thought that he should have been a woman, and even wondered whether he was born intersexed (this despite famously dismissing women as ‘speaking a language I do not understand’ – perhaps because he didn’t like too much competition in the speaking stakes). Either way, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly happy with his penis or even its existence – something homosexual males, like heterosexual ones, are usually delirious about. But then again, perhaps rather than expressing some kind of  proto-transsexuality Quentin’s Great Dark Man complex was merely setting up a situation in which he could remain ever faithful to his one true love. Himself.

In Thames TV’s TNCS, which begins (at Crisp’s request) with a pretty, pre-pubescent boy as Quentin/Dennis dancing in a dress in front of a full-length mirror, Hurtian Crisp is an out-and-proud narcissist, who simply refuses to take on board the shame that such an outrageous perversion should entail. When he attempts to join the Army at the start of the war he causes apoplexy in the recruiters for being completely honest about his reasons for doing so: he doesn’t mouth platitudes about ‘doing his duty’, ‘his bit’ or ‘fighting Nazis’. He just wants to eat properly and the squaddies he knows seem to have quite a nice time of it, loading and unloading petrol cans in Basingstoke. His openness about his homosexuality is palpably less shocking to the Army officials than his honesty about his self-interestedness. About his interest in himself.

Or as Hurt/Crisp replies as a preening adolescent youth when asked by his exasperated, buttoned-up Edwardian petite-bourgeois father: ‘Do you intend to admire yourself in the mirror forever??’

If I possibly can.’

And boy, did he. TNCS, which aired slap in the middle of the 70s, was probably more of an inspiration to the glam, punk, new-wave and new romantic generation than to gays in general. Hurtian Crisp and his hennaed hair and make-up sashaying the streets of 1930s London symbolised in the 1970s the idea of an aestheticized revolt against Victorian ideas of proper deportment and dullness that had dominated Britain for much of the Twentieth Century. The best British pop music had always been a form of aesthetic revolt, and Crisp seemed very much his own special creation, which is what so many teens now aspired to be. Crisp was taken for a real original and individual in an age when everyone wanted to be original and individual. Or as Crisp put it himself later:

‘The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.’

TNCS changed Crisp’s life and made him very famous indeed. A reality TV winner before such a thing existed, his prize was the chance to move to America. Since he had loved Hollywood movies from childhood and was later treated like a Hollywood starlet (albeit in air raid shelters) by American GI’s in London during the Second World War, no wonder he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

But if there’s anything to be learned from An Englishman in New York, the sequel to TNCS broadcast on ITV recently, it’s that it may all have been a terrible mistake. Even if Mr Crisp never thought so.

Although Hurt turns in a technically fine performance, he seems to have become more Crispian and less Hurtian. Perhaps that’s inevitable with the passage of time (Hurt is nearly 70, the age Crisp was when he first played him). Or perhaps it’s simply that his acting skills have increased. Whatever the reason, it’s not a welcome development here. And I’m sure Crisp would have agreed.

But much, much worse is the redemptive reek of this sequel. Everything is made to turn on Crisp’s ‘AIDS {upper case back then, remember} is a fad’ quip made in the early 80s and the trouble this got him into in the US – and why he was a good sort, really. Despite the things he actually said. So we see him adopt a gay artist dying of the ‘fad’, fussing over him and arranging for his art to be exhibited. We discover him sending secret cheques to Liz Taylor’s Aids foundation. We even hear him explain what he meant by ‘fad’ (supposedly it was a political tactic: minimize the gay plague to avoid a hetero backlash).

Now, this obsession with redemption may be very American and has of course, like many American obsessions, become more of an English one of late – especially when trying to sell something to the Yanks, as I’m sure the producers of this sequel are hoping to do. But if there was any point to Crisp at all it was that he was utterly unsentimental – except where royalty were concerned – and relatively free of the hypocrisies of everyday life.  This sequel supposedly about him is full of them. So forgive me if I’m unconvinced.

Crisp was invincible in his determination to regard the US as the dreamland of the movies of his youth made real: America was as he put it ‘Heaven’ where England was ‘Hell’. And why not? If you’ve spent most of your best years deprived of almost every single illusion that comforts most other people, why shouldn’t you have one big one in your retirement?

And to be fair much of what he had to say about the friendliness and flattering, encouraging, open-hearted nature of Americans compared to the mean-minded, resentful, vindictive English is quite true, even today. But Crisp’s whole approach to life was even more at odds with American culture, even in its atypical NYC form, with its emphasis on self-improvement, aspiration, uplift and success. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style,’ said Crisp, who regarded himself as a total failure. Could there be a more un-American worldview? Apart that is from, “Don’t try to keep up with the Jones.  Try to drag them down to your level.  It’s cheaper.”

In an early documentary from the 1960s Crisp, sitting in his London bed-sitting room sipping an unappetizing powdered drink he takes instead of preparing food, which he can’t be bothered with, that ‘has all the vitamins and protein I need but tastes awful’ he describes himself as a Puritan. Actually Crisp was a Puritan with an added frosting of asceticism. Crisp was deeply suspicious of all pleasure (save the pleasure of being listened to and looked at) and most especially of sex, which he described as ‘the last refuge of the miserable’. And four years of house dust is a very good way of showing how above the material world you are.

It’s a very middle class, middle England, middle century Puritanism – just like Crisp’s background. But Crisp was also his own kind of revenge on himself, or on the world that had made him — of which he was a living parody. Ultimately none of us are really our own special creations. The most we can hope for is a special edition.

Crisp’s Puritanism was part of the reason why he could never embrace Gay Lib (‘what do you want to be liberated from?’). He was recently subjected to a stern posthumous ticking off by Peter Tatchell, an original Gay Libber, in the Independent newspaper prompted by what he sees as the ‘sanitising of Crisp’s ignorant pompous homophobia’ in An Englishman in New York. Post-60s Crisp was apparently jealous of a new generation of out queers who were stealing his limelite: he wasn’t the only homo in town any more.

This broadside was a tad harsh, and Tatchell sometimes sounds as if he’s on the Army board that rejected Crisp (while accusing him of ‘homophobia’ threatens to make an absurdity of the word). But I agree that the sequel does ‘sanitise’ Crisp, though I think this a bad thing for different reasons to Mr Tatchell. I also suspect there’s some truth to the accusation of ‘jealousy’, but I’d be inclined to put them in another form. Maybe Crisp didn’t want homosexuality to be normalised because if it were it would undo his life’s work. Likewise, I think Crisp would have loathed metrosexuality.

And as the sequel suggests, in one of its few insightful moments, one reason for Crisp’s failure to answer the gay clarion call was simply that he didn’t believe in causes, or the subjugation of truth and dress-sense to expediency that inevitably goes with causes. Unless that cause is yourself.

Besides, like many ‘inverts’, Crisp was a great and romantic believer in Heterosexuality – the ideal kind, of course, rather than the kind that heterosexuals actually have to live, and which they execute very, very badly.  He used to call heterosexuals ‘real people’ (as opposed to ‘unreal’ homosexuals), but I suspect he thought he was the only real heterosexual in town. And in a sense, he was.

***

I can’t leave you without pointing out that while Quentin Crisp may have dismissed Aids as a ‘fad’, Hurtian Crisp became more associated with ‘the gay plague’ than almost anyone save Rock Hudson: literally becoming the sound of the seriousness of the subject. In 1975 hetero Hurt plays the most famous stately homo in England. The success of this gets him to Hollywood, where four years later in 1979 he is cast in an even more globally famous role – as ‘Patient Zero’ in Ridley Scott’s Alien: the first host for the terrifying unknown organism that enters his body by face-raping him and which proceeds to kill-off in horrifying, phallic-jackhammer fashion, his shipmates. Two years before the first identified Aids cases in NY.

Eight years later, Hurt is cast as the unforgettable fey-gravelly voice for those terrifying tombstone ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ ads – complete with jackhammers – that ran in heavy rotation on UK TV, urging people to read the Government leaflet pushed through their letterbox and practise safe sex.

In other words, The Naked Civil Servant had become a rubber-sheathed civil servant.

Old Spice: interview Crisp gave Andrew Barrow of the Independent a year before his death.

Crispisms

‘In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.’

‘It is not the simple statement of facts that ushers in freedom; it is the constant repetition of them that has this liberating effect. Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom.’

‘To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.’

‘You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.’

‘I simply haven’t the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds.’

‘It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at the last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.’

‘The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to place their entire life in the hands of some other person. For this purpose they frequently choose someone who doesn’t even want the beastly thing.’

‘The simplest comment on my book came from my ballet teacher. She said, “I wish you hadn’t made every line funny.  It’s so depressing.”‘

‘Even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge. I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry.’

‘Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, “She’s joking, isn’t she?” But they said, “No.” Doesn’t everyone know that sex is a sin? All pleasure is a sin.’

Ours is the Dorian Gray Age

 

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by Mark Simpson (The London Times, September 4 2009)

“Are you tired of looking at me yet?” asks Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray in Oliver Parker’s new film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Ostensibly he’s asking the question of his admirers, the cynical hedonist Lord Henry Wooton (Colin Firth) and the idealistic, gushing painter of his portrait Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), but he could equally be asking the 21st century when it is going to stop gawping at him.

Since Wilde penned The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, revised and expanded the following year into the book we know today, the story of a young man of “extraordinary personal beauty” who trades his soul for eternal youth has exerted a fatal fascination. Like its uncannily handsome protagonist, the story itself seems to be timeless and ageless, becoming if anything fresher and more alluring with every passing year.

In the last decade alone there have been at least seven film adaptations, Will Self’s literary update, Dorian: An Imitation, full of debauchery and disease, and last year Matthew Bourne’s modern dance version, full of bulging underwear. Like the 2001 movie adaptation Pact With the Devil (starring Malcolm McDowell as an over-sulphurous Henry), Bourne’s update put Dorian in today’s Faustian world of advertising and fashion, in which he is the pretty face for a new fragrance for men.

Fashion itself can’t leave Dorian alone either. Last year the men’s glossy Arena Homme Plus ran a Dorian special, and Dolce & Gabbana Autumn/Winter Collection is Dorian-inspired.

This fascination is hardly surprising. We live in an age of Dorians, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams and online profiles. If there’s a picture in the attic you can be sure it’s been photoshopped. Last month Men’s Health, the magazine for men who want to be cover girls, became the best-selling men’s mag. At least in the world of the glossies, men’s breasts are now more popular than women’s – for men.

The buttoned-down Victorians, who after all replaced the male nude with the female in art, would have been shocked by today’s adoration of male narcissism as much as, if not more than, by the openness of homosexuality. “Have you ever adored a young man madly?” Wilde the aesthete dandy and married man was asked at his first trial. He parried: “I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.” As we know, it didn’t go down well and ended up with two years hard labour for gross indecency, a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation, let alone homosexuality, in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course , for most of the 20th century.

a-LE_PORTRAIT_DE_DORIAN_GRAY-9

The famous 1945 Hollywood adaptation The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a crystalline George Sanders as Henry, a young Angela Lansbury as pretty cockernee sparrow Sybil Vane, and a somewhat simpering Hurd Hatfield as Dorian, struggled manfully to “straighten out” the story, even if it portrayed Dorian as a kind of male femme fatale. It made a star of Hatfield, who was gay in his private life, but he felt that the movie was his own portrait in the attic: “You know, I was never a great beauty in Gray,” he said, quite truthfully, “and I never understood why I got the part and have spent my career regretting it.” (Hollywood would find its own blue-jeaned Dorian in the next decade: James Dean.)

peter_firth_small1John Osborne’s brilliant adaptation, filmed in 1976 by the BBC, is probably the most Wildean (Osborne was well equipped to highlight its exquisitely repressed homoerotics). It also boasts perhaps the best Dorian – a young, golden Peter Firth. But it is an ageing John Gielgud who steals the show, having of course been given the most beguiling lines by Wilde: “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”

The latest Dorian is a brunette, the 28-year-old Barnes, who has the darkly blank stare of a Keanu Reeves (but of course not so young-looking as the 45 year-old Hollywood actor). In a world where Dorians are everywhere, it’s a tricky business portraying him, and for my popcorn money Barnes is a rather dull Dorian – and less attractive than, say, the gruesomely disposable youths in Final Destination 4. Parker’s Dorian Gray mostly works as a rollicking Gothic yarn, mercifully set in its proper location, Victorian England, sparing us the pointless ‘updatings’. But Wilde himself seems to be missing. There is a glistening stillness about Wilde which isn’t very movie. So instead we have lots of manly action — in one scene Dorian seduces a mother while the naked daughter hides under the bed — but does allow a brief consummation between Dorian and his painter Basil.

Colin Firth is fun as a kind of Loaded Henry: “Cheer up, boy,” he chides Dorian on a trip to a gin palace, “you’ve got a face like a slapped nancy!” This isn’t a line you’ll find in the original text. Neither is: “ ‘ow about you two gentlemen givin’ a workin’ girl a double stuffin’?” All in all, this Dorian is portrayed as a kind of American Psycho version of 1960s Mick Jagger, surrounded by groupies and jaded hedonism. Added to the mix is an assertive, modern female character: a suffragette counterbalance to the cloying passivity of Sybil Vane who tops herself when Dorian spurns her. Dorian’s portrait, always a co-star in any adaptation, becomes, thanks to CGI, a Damien Hirst installation of maggots and corruption. Or an animated Mr Hyde to Dorian’s Dr Jekyll (a book that partly inspired Wilde). Most of all, Dorian Gray portrays the glamour and horror of toxic-bachelor selfishness and leading a double life – long before the internet made it possible for everyone.

Neil Bartlett, author of the highly-regarded Who Was That Man? A Present for Oscar Wilde, staged The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1994 long before the current wave of popularity. Why does he think Dorian persists? “The idea that we can get away with our crimes just so long as they don’t show in our faces, is such a potent one,” he says. “And because, no matter how many times it gets adapted or bowdlerised, the bizarre power of the original remains. Wilde knew a lot about guilt, duplicity, the pleasure of crime, beautiful young men — and for all the purple prose, the book is really written from the heart.”

Why haven’t we tired of looking at Mr Gray? Perhaps because, as Mr Wilde might have put it despite the warning of his novel, one never tires of looking at oneself.

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

Gore Vidal Turns Off The Lights on the American Dream

GoreVidalVanVechten1

Mark Simpson speaks to the mother of Myra Breckinridge, and scourge of imperialism, monotheism – and monosexuality

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2009)

I”m hearing the last living Great American Man of Letters. He says something else I don’t hear and I ask him to repeat it. Suddenly this 83 year old legend is very loud and very scary indeed: ‘IS “QUIET” A EUPHEMISM FOR DEAD?!’ he thunders in a voice much more Biblical than his old foe the late Charlton Heston was ever able to muster. But then, Mr Vidal is amongst other things, an Old Testament prophet – albeit a Godless, ‘pinko’ one with a very mischievous sense of humour.

***

‘I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.’ So announces the opening sentence of the 1968 sensational best-seller Myra Breckinridge about a hilarious, devastating, but always elegant transsexual, by the hilarious, devastating, but always elegant Gore Vidal. Myra, a (slightly psychotic) devotee of High Hollywood, hell-bent on revenging herself on American machismo, continues her manifesto:

‘Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.’

From the right angle, and in the right light of hindsight, Gore Vidal resembles his most famous offspring. Clad only in his wit – and an armour-plated ego – Mr Vidal has, during his long and prolific career as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, (failed) politician, commentator, movie special guest-star, (gleeful) gadfly, and America’s (highly unauthorised) biographer, taken on The Land of the Free’s finest literary and political warriors, who had no word for ‘why’ or ‘because’, but plenty for ‘faggot’ and ‘pinko’.

Vidal broke the balls – and outlasted – tiresomely macho brawlers like Norman Mailer: he compared The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of menstrual flow”. Later, when he was knocked to the ground by Mailer, he retorted, still on the floor: ‘Words fail Norman Mailer yet again’.

And also right wing bruisers like William F. Buckley Jnr., whom he famously provoked into threatening him and shouting ‘you queer!’ on live national TV in 1968. ‘RIP WFB – In Hell’ was Gore’s very Christian obituary notice last year. Like that other thorn in the side of America, Castro, Vidal has survived almost all his foes.

In his spare time, piercing, pointed Gore has taken on the Cold War, the American Empire, what he calls the ‘Republican-Democrat’ Party, monotheism, and, even more sacred to America (and, for that matter, the UK), monosexuality. He himself has had relationships with both men and women (and what women! He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward). He maintains, like the incurable blasphemer he is, that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ are adjectives not nouns, acts not identities. Most recently, his impressively unnecessary punking of the venerable, extravagantly charming BBC presenter David Dimbleby on live TV on Election Night – ‘I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE!’ he barked in his best Lady Bracknell –  has become an unlikely YouTube hit.

As he once said: ‘Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.’ Or was that Myra? Either way, Mr Vidal is more of a man than many of his adversaries sadly mistook themselves for – and, perhaps, more woman than any of them could ever hope to possess.

Maybe that’s why, twenty years ago when I was a callow youth, I sent Mr Vidal a fan letter. I also included, as you do, a topless shot: back then, I had Hollywood tits. And who better to appreciate them than Gore Vidal, MGM’s last contract writer? Fortunately for both of us, response was there none.

I put my tits away, and took to writing. But I was probably still writing fan notes to Vidal, even when I scribbled, as I did from time to time, nasty, Oedipal things about him. Re-reading Myra Breckinridge I can see that too much of my own work is just footnotes to this forty-year-old novel which more or less invented metrosexuality decades before the word was coined, strapped it on and rammed it where the sun don’t shine. (Described at the time on the dust-jacket as a ‘novel of far-out sexuality’ it now seems, well, all the way in).

But now I’m actually speaking to Mr Vidal. I feel like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future where he meets his teen mother at High School (save my ‘mother’ is generally agreed to be no pussycat). Am I going to disappear into an embarrassing time-paradox? ‘Please forgive my nervousness,’ I stutter. ‘I’m a Big Fan – though I suppose those words probably strike terror into your heart…’.

Without missing a beat comes the laconic reply, in that measured, unmistakable voice: ‘They clearly strike terror into yours.’

Later, I hand him another line when I gush, not entirely baselessly: ‘To someone like me, you almost seem like the embodiment of the Twentieth Century!’

‘On arthritic days I know I’m the Twentieth Century’.

Mr Vidal is speaking today from his American home of the last forty years in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal in the Hollywood Hills makes sense – it is an LA Eyrie; a place where his back is covered and from which he can spy people coming a long way off. His fortress-like house in Ravello, Italy, which he recently sold, was perched atop rocky cliffs, reached only by a steep, dizzying pathway. But Vidal says he chose the Hills because they weren’t vulgar. ‘Unlike other parts of LA, like Beverly Hills or Bel Air, when I bought this house forty years ago, it did not attract the super rich, wherever they live they build these huge houses. You don’t have many of those up here in the hills.’

‘Do you survey Los Angeles from your window?’

‘Heavens, no! There’s no sight uglier than Los Angeles!’

‘But at night it can be very beautiful.’

‘Well, almost anywhere can be beautiful at night!’

‘True. Even a refinery town like Middlesbrough, which just happens to be down the road from my own somewhat less glamorous home in the UK. The opening aerial shot of a future, infernal Los Angeles in Blade Runner were supposedly inspired by Middlesbrough at night – the director Ridley Scott grew up round there.’

‘Yes, Ridley Scott used to hire my house. I think also during the making of that film. I used to hire it out a lot – mostly to Brits.’

‘You’re regarded very fondly on these shores.’

‘It’s reciprocated,’ he says, almost warmly. ‘The books were read in the UK at the same time as they were in America. Although more easily for the English since, unlike the New York Times, the London Times was not dedicated to attacking me.’

The New York Times, taking ladylike fright at the matter-of-fact way Vidal’s second novel ‘The City and the Pillar’ dealt with same-sex love in the US Army during the Second World War (Vidal enlisted at the age 17), had an attack of the vapours and banned Gore’s next five novels. No minor snub this, since the NYT even more so then than today could make or break you as a writer.

Perhaps the NYT was so shocked because this distasteful dissident was a product of the very heart of the East Coast Elite. A cuckoo in a feathered nest. Born in October 3, 1924 at the US Military Academy in Westpoint, his father an aeronautics pioneer and airline tycoon (founding what would become TWA and Eastern Airlines), his grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, the most powerful Senator of the age – and also blind – his mother was an actress and socialite (and a mean drunk). He was christened Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. by the headmaster of St. Albans preparatory school, a school for the DC elite which he was to attend. He later took the name ‘Gore’ in honour of his grandfather (a leading Isolationist – whose outlook Vidal has remained faithful to), whom he spent much of his childhood reading to, and mixing with the most powerful figures in the most powerful country in the world – just before it was about to become the world.

I’d like to think that Vidal was almost a kind of internal émigré from the East Coast when he arrived in LA in the early 50s as a scriptwriter for MGM. ‘Not really,’ he demurs, ‘I was back and forth between the East and West Coast. I was one of the founders of live drama on television. I must have done a hundred plays during ’54 to ’57. After the New York Times banned me I had to make a living, and there it was: I never wanted to be a playwright but I found out I was one. Theatre work kept me going for many years.’

A number of his plays were made into movies, including The Best Man (1960), starring Henry Fonda as an idealistic Presidential Candidate faced with one who will do anything to win. It includes a prophetic speech: ‘One day there will be a Jewish President and then a black President. And when all the minorities are heard from we’ll do something for the downtrodden majority of this country: the ladies.’ I mention to Vidal it’s being re-released on DVD.

‘Oh, they never tell me,’ he sighs, ‘and I never receive any money from it – it just happens. I mean now I think the rights probably belong to a group of Martian businessmen.’ (Possibly a bitter reference to another play of his, Visit to a Small Planet, made into a movie starring Jerry Lewis in 1960, in which a delinquent Martian visits Earth – the play’s sharp satire of the Washington elite and 1950s American values disappeared in the film version.)

It’s a busy Oscar Weekend in LA, but will Mr Vidal be attending any of the events? ‘I’ve been invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party but I don’t think I’ll be going along. I haven’t been to the Oscars for years. I really don’t have much interest any more.’

‘Whatever happened’, I ask, ‘to the uplifting propaganda for the American Way of Life that Hollywood used to produce?’

‘Well, there are no longer studios to generate that kind of euphoria,’ he replies glumly. ‘Money is all powerful these days, and calls all the shots – in Hollywood and pretty much everything else in American life. We watched That Hamilton Woman last night, as it was called in America, the 1941 Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton biopic. It really was a spectacular movie, they certainly don’t make them like that anymore. It was the first time that Vivien Leigh and Olivier had appeared together, which caused enormous excitement. London was being bombed and they were making this movie in Hollywood! With Alexander Korda directing and producing. A superb romantic film and great acting. God…!’ He trails off in an unguarded reverie.

High Hollywood, the period that Vidal grew up with, visiting the movie theatre almost daily, almost religiously, is one of the few things that he could be accused of being sentimental about. In Screening History (1992) he wrote: ‘It occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.’ In Myra Breckinridge, the heroine declares: ‘…in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.’

No one could seriously accuse most contemporary Hollywood output of being amenable to ‘profound study’. High Hollywood was about money too of course, but movies back then often seemed to be the most aesthetic medium imaginable: fashion, art, glamour. How was that?

‘The early moguls liked art,’ explains Vidal. ‘Like Adolph Zuckor who founded Paramount. He cast Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, in Queen Elizabeth, his first feature film. Zuckor aspired to the highest standards of theatre. Then of course Hollywood became very successful and money became all anyone was really interested in.’

‘Remember, movies are movies. It’s better to do them out here where there’s plenty of light without going broke over the electricity. Mind you, the reason that Warner Brothers films were often the best movies made in the 1930s was because they looked so dark – the chiaroscuro quality of WB films was priceless. Bette Davies in The Letter was a great one- from the opening gloomy, brooding shot. How did Warner do it? Well it was because the Brothers Warner were very, very cheap! They’d go around from soundstage to soundstage turning the lights down, so halfway through the day every scene was in darkness!’

‘It was said that a British actor, a little on the pompous side came over here for some loot. Addressing some of the old timer American actors he asked: “Isn’t it difficult living in a society so unrooted and uprooted, without tradition of any kind?” One of them answered: “Why the Warner Brothers Christmas layoffs are one of our greatest traditions!”‘ Vidal laughs scornfully.

Vidal is himself a frequent visitor to the UK, ‘When I was younger I always made a point to visit Saville Row Whenever in London – though the last time was 30 years ago.’

‘How long does a Saville suit last?’

‘Forever! I don’t believe in fashion. I have no time for it. Versace once told me I looked a state and sent some of his staff to visit me in Ravello and make a suit. And very nice suits they were too. But it isn’t something I take an interest in.’

Vidal may claim not to believe in fashion, but in Myra Breckinridge he proved a profound observer of male fashion trends, predicting in effect the Twenty First Century: ‘…young men [today] compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.’

But when I suggest this to him, bringing up his most famous, most prophetic book, he just says quickly, ‘I should read it again.’ Making it quite clear that he doesn’t wish to discuss it. Perhaps the eccentric 1970 film version starring Raquel Welch left a bad taste in his mouth – it certainly left one in the critics’ mouths.

I ask him when he was last in the UK. ‘Just the other week. I had the great joy of addressing the House of Commons in Westminster’s Great Hall courtesy of Third World Solidarity to talk about the matter of Cuba and the United States. It was the venom of the Kennedy brothers who were out to destroy Castro because he didn’t want to be killed by them. Or invaded. Or taken over. And his revolution erased. The vanity of that family!’

Vidal’s vigorous attacks on liberal icons the Kennedys – whom he knew personally – for their warmongering are always value for money, exploding as they do the soft-focus mythology of Camelot. Vidal was one of the few people in American public life to dare to denounce the Cold War as an American invention to keep the politically and economically profitable US war machine turning over after the Second World War ceased trading. ‘The thing about Jack was that he actually believed all that anti-communist propaganda – the previous Presidents didn’t.’ (To which could be added: George W. Bush had much in common with Kennedy’s messianic zeal and frothy talk of ‘freedom’ – he just didn’t have the good fortune to be assassinated in his first term.)

Vidal was vehemently attacked for his outspokenness about the Cold War and particularly for talking and writing about something that was as clear as day: the American Empire. ‘”How dare you!” people shouted,’ recalls Vidal. ‘”We’re not an Empire! We stand for freedom!”‘

‘Recently pretty much everyone has started talking about the “American Empire”,’ I observe.

‘Well, when we started down the Roman Imperial, dynastic way with the Bush family,’ says Vidal wearily, ‘it became quite clear it was all wrong whatever it was. Remember, we didn’t break away from England, we broke away from the King. That’s what the Declaration of Independence is all about. Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant propaganda united the colonists against George III.’

‘We’re the original Evil Empire.’

‘Well, you certainly were then.’

‘Alas, our empire fell . . .’

‘Well, you ran out of money.’

‘Yes. As the US seems to be doing now. Are you surprised by the speeded-up schedule of Imperial implosion?’

‘I was surprised by the speed at which we lost the Republic, and lost Magna Carta during the Bush Dictatorship.’

‘But you see liberal icon Roosevelt as the first American Emperor – decreeing there should be no Empires, save his.’

‘I’ll tell you a story. Roosevelt was having lunch with Churchill. The Second World War was drawing to a close. They toasted the end of the war. Then Roosevelt gave Churchill a radiant smile, and said [here Vidal imitates Roosevelt’s high Patrician voice: he is a great, savage mimic], ‘You realize you’re going to have to give up your precious India, don’t you?’ [imitating Churchill’s jowly tones] “Never!” And they had a quarrel over the lunch table. Many people who happened to be there spread it around. Roosevelt not only won the argument, it was force majeure. Roosevelt said, ‘The days of Empire are over, and I trust you realize this.”‘

‘Churchill said: “What do you want me to do? Get on my hind legs like your little dog Fala, and beg?” Roosevelt said simply: “Yes.” Don’t tempt an Emperor!’

‘Most people in the UK seem not to have realised the real nature of the ‘special relationship’ we have had with the US since 1940.’

‘Why should they? their lives go on anyway…’.

Vidal is a keen historian, but that most dangerous kind: an autodidact. ‘I didn’t go to Harvard,’ he once boasted. ‘I just sent my work there.’ Unlike most historians, Vidal has actually had met most of the key players. Or perhaps the other way around – as he has put it himself elsewhere: ‘People always say: “You got to meet everyone.” They always put that sentence the wrong way around. I mean, why not put it the right way, that these people got to meet me, and wanted to? Otherwise it sounds like I spent my life hustling around trying to meet people: “Oh, look, there’s the governor!”‘ Wouldn’t you want to meet Gore Vidal if you were Jack Kennedy or William Burroughs? Although he is an incorrigible name-dropper, it’s probably because his world has been so filled with names that not to drop them would be the pretentious thing to do.

‘I used to know Nancy Astor,’ he says, launching into a five star anecdote sparked by our discussion of Britain’s rather unlikely Imperial past. ‘And I asked her about her famous trip to the Soviet with Bernard Shaw. “Well, I was just lookin’ out that train window” – she had a Virginia accent – “I was watchin’ the whole world go by. And it was pathetic – he kept readin’ one of his own books!”

In Moscow Stalin was in charming mode, embracing them, one in each arm. He listened to Shaw go on for a while, then pointed to a map of the world on the wall of his Kremlin office and he asked, “How is it that this little island in the North Sea has ended up with all this??” And he pointed to all the pink on the map. ‘”Can you explain that to me Mr. Shaw?” Shaw declined to respond. And so he turned to Lady Astor. “Well, ahh think it is becaauuse it was we first who gave the world the King James Version of the Bible.” I asked her, “What did Stalin say to that?” “He didn’t say anythin’.” On the way out, Lady Astor asked, “Mr Stalin, when you gonna stop killin’ people?”

“Oh, Lady Astor,’ replied Stalin, looking directly at her. “The undesirable classes do not kill themselves.”‘

‘Now,’ says Vidal, ‘that’s a nice story where everybody’s in character!’

My audience with the Twentieth Century is winding down. ‘Do you think,’ I ask, looking for silver linings and sunny endings, ‘the latest Emperor, Barack Obama, can rescue the American Imperium?’

‘The US is a very racist country,’ responds Vidal sorrowfully. ‘He will probably be assassinated. Then Martial Law will be declared. The contingency plans are already in place, I’m sure.’ Like the Brother’s Warner, he’s switching off the lights.

‘Do you think the American Dream can be revived?’

‘No. There was never anything to it. It was always fraudulent.’ Off goes another light.

‘LA was once the city of the future – does it still have one?’

‘No. It’s run out of gas.’ And another bulb dies. We’re now in darkness. Bette Davis had more light in that opening shot in The Letter.

‘Do you think America can survive without the kind of brilliant dreams and illusions Hollywood used to manufacture – or without an Empire on which the sun never sets?’

‘Of course we can,’ he retorts. ‘We’ll just get on with our lives like everyone else.’ And a little no-frills night-light comes on.

All things considered, it was probably for the best that I didn’t mention the topless fan letter I’d sent all those years ago to Gore, glorious Grinch of the Hollywood Hills.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2012

Special thanks to Steven Zeeland and DAKrolak

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.