Global Cooling: The Rise & Rise of ‘American Air’

Mark Simpson on the rise and rise of ‘American air’

(London Times Magazine, 2003)

‘This is my home, this is America!’ a canned, generic male power-ballad singer, possibly on loan from those naff Gillette commercials, warbles over the P.A. The giant on-stage video screen flashes stirring images of the American flag, soaring eagles, the Statue of Liberty and Abraham Lincoln. Song and images reach a lugubrious climax. Lights flash. Disco music pounds. A middle-aged man in an expensive suit and a side-parting that appears to start just above his ear, takes the stage to wild applause. He reads uplifting words from a teleprompter: ‘This is the American Dream come true…’. ‘During this time of conflict I have never been more proud to be an American…we have something truly worth fighting for…’.

No, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican convention, or even a Coca Cola convention, but the annual convention of ACCA, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.  The Secretary of the ACCA is addressing a packed audience of several hundred rather animated but perfectly sweat-less contractors in a hall in Palm Springs, California, which is magically cool, despite outside temperatures already well into the 90s this morning.

It may seem slightly laughable to British eyes and ears that so much patriotism and national significance should be attached to something as prosaic, as vulgar as air conditioning, but then perhaps that’s why our country is in such a state and why for a Brit, visiting the US is like visiting a strange parallel Universe where things actually work. A place where, moreover, things actually appear designed to work for you. America may be the land where the consumer is king, but it is also the land where the engineer is Prime Minister. The US is mixer taps, automatic transmissions, alarming-but-so-hygienic auto-flush toilets and urinals, power-assisted steering, dishwashers-as-standard, garbage-disposal machines, right-turn on red, top-loading washing-machines and driers that actually dry, drive-thru banks, automatic garage doors, showers that actually shower instead of merely misting you, and eight-lane freeways without a traffic cone in sight. American ingenuity and efficiency is as thoughtful and as indiscriminate as the mint left on your motel pillow and the sanitary seal on the toilet seat. ‘No sweat’ is the real translation of ‘E pluribus Unum’.

And of all America’s consumer engineering triumphs, air conditioning is the greatest. It symbolises more than anything else, America’s resourceful triumph over Nature – Nature in its most elemental form: Weather. While we Brits talk endlessly, helplessly about the subject; Yanks like to do something about it. And there is rather a lot of weather in the US: during the long continental summers it is not unusual for temperatures to hit the 100s and squat humidly there for days or weeks on end. Air conditioning – man made weather – standardises temperatures and seasons across America, allowing Americans to work, shop, drive and sleep with as much disregard for the outside climate as a Martian colonist. Today more than 50% of American homes have aircon. In 1996, 81% of all new US homes constructed were equipped with central aircon. More than 98% of new cars in the US come equipped with aircon as standard. In America, aircon has become a standard luxury, as ubiquitous and essential as, well, air.

Air conditioning – or AC to give it it’s car dashboard abbreviation – is the essence of the USA, its atmosphere, its very breath. It’s what embraces you refreshingly when you arrive sticky and rumpled at one of her airports. It’s what caresses your feet soothingly in the rental car. It’s what greets you briskly when you step into a shop, office or restaurant. It’s the distant whirring and humming in the night, the reassuring sound of 24hr American thoughtfulness, ingenuity, luxury, comfort – busy and dutiful on our behalf while we are sleeping.

Air conditioning is also the sound of America growing. Since the end of the Second World War, when AC became affordable for domestic use, eight out of ten of the fastest growing cities in US are located in the (hot humid) South Eastern and (hot arid) South Western parts of the country. Without AC Florida would still be a sparsely populated orange grove instead of a booming retirement and tourist state. Without AC even the black gold of Dallas and Houston could not have made the steaming Southern Texas swamps attractive enough. Without AC, the desert dynamos of Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada would still be dusty two-horse towns. And without AC, Palm Springs, ‘the city that air conditioning helped build’ as the literature for the ACCA Convention dubs it, would probably still be just a Winter retreat in the Colorado Desert for a few Hollywood stars, instead of the year-round home for 45,000 people it has become. In other words, AC opened up another Frontier.

Air conditioning is the wind of American imperialism. The US Army reportedly took large numbers of portable AC units with it into Iraq’s desert heat, to make sure its warriors could at least enjoy American air while conquering/liberating a foreign land. There’s a certain inexorable logic to this: America’s dependence on imported oil from places such as the Gulf (and President Bush’s recent abrogation of the Kyoto protocols) is a result of AC as much as America’s love of automobiles – even as early as the 1960s, widespread use of AC meant that demand for electricity in places such as New York actually peaked in the Summer.

Mind, AC is the American lifestyle that most of the world apparently wants to be conquered by. Even in the temperate UK, sybaritic AC is becoming commonplace in new cars, luxury flats and commercial premises. In 1995 only 100,000 commercial systems were sold in the UK, a figure which had grown to 400,000 by 2001. Developing countries want a breath of American air too: India and China are plugging in their AC units (and causing regular blackouts) . In Hong Kong, AC is such a coveted item that relatives of the recently deceased now burn their AC units: according to local custom burning possessions of the deceased mean that they have use of them in the afterlife. In some parts of the world it’s now not only impossible to live without AC, it’s also impossible to die without it.

A map of empire displayed by York, one of the major American AC manufacturers, on their stand at the ACCA Convention, tells the story: in addition to landmarks such as NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, the US sub fleet, the Capitol Building and the (former) World Trade Center, there are more surprising trophies, such as Britain’s Trafalgar Class Nuclear Submarines, Windsor Castle, the Chunnel (the high-speed trains generate much heat), the Kremlin, the Grand Mosque and the Taj Mahal. America is exporting even its air and the world is buying. Atmospheric imperialism anyone?

***

Today, in mid-March, the temperature is already well into the 90s. Palm Springs, California, ‘the city that AC helped build’, lies on the western edge of the Coachella Valley, within the Colorado Desert, a two-hour drive South East of Los Angeles. Winter temperatures average in the pleasant 70s with nights in the refreshing mid-40s. However, in the summer the temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees in the shade; surface temperatures reach a flesh-frying 195 degrees. The desert tortoise common to these parts burrows thirty-two feet underground to escape the heat (early settlers in the area also lived in tunnels). Palm Springs in the summer is a reminder that Southern California’s climate can be almost as hostile as Mars.

It’s easy to understand why Truman Capote who lived here in the 1960s, fell in love with the air conditioning man who came to fix his equipment one day and didn’t let him leave. Palm Springs today is utterly dependent on aircon. Not only are almost all homes, hotels and shops fitted with AC, Palm Springs even has outdoors comfort cooling – some hotel pool areas and many Downtown open-air restaurants and sidewalks deploy sprinkler systems which shower diners and pedestrians with cooling atomised water.

Americans were not the first people to find ways to build crafty comfort cooling devices to mitigate the summer heat. Recently a 6000 year-old settlement in Syria was excavated with double-walled living quarters, apparently to encourage air-flow, in an attempt to deal with summer temps of more than 40 degrees C. An Eighth Century Baghdad caliph had snow packed between the walls of his villa for Summer cooling (Saddam Hussein though probably just relied on gold-plated AC units).

In 1902 the engineer Alfred Wolff fitted the New York Stock Exchange with a refrigerated ventilation system, inaugurating the first modern air conditioning system, an ammonia-refrigerated brine coil system equivalent to 300 tons of melting ice. Filtered cooled air was gently diffused through an ornamental ceiling over the heads of the stock traders. Wolff also fitted three residential systems, though as the names of his latter-day caliph clients suggest – Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and J.J. Astor – domestic comfort cooling was a long way off being an affordable commodity and remained a symbol of prestige and wealth until the 1930s.

As Gail Cooper shows in her fascinating book ‘Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment 1900-1960’ (John Hopkins University Press), it was in the new mass-market industry of cinema that AC began to become a universal aspiration – part of the American Dream. If the motion picture houses were pleasure factories where the raw material were large numbers of people, the effect of all these huddled masses crammed together, especially in the Summer, was not always so pleasing. Health inspectors in NYC in 1911 reported that in one theatre on Third Avenue the smell was so rank that attendants walked up and down the aisles with an atomizers of perfume trying to blot out the pong of the punters. In fact, before AC movies were seasonal entertainment: many theatres closed for the Summer – as early as May in some parts of the country – and those that remained open experienced a dramatic drop in custom.

Difficult to imagine now, but in the Summer, Americans lived – and often slept – outdoors, seeking relief from the heat in breezes and cool water, heading to beaches, parks, swimming holes. The new large scale theatres with their 2000-4000 seats required large investment in capital and could not afford the seasonal drop-off. Despite the cost of installation, it was estimated that a mere 2% increase in attendance would pay for the AC. In other words, air conditioning allowed Hollywood to abolish Summer – and affordably. Nowadays the biggest movies are released in the Summer and target precisely those people who in the pre-AC past would have been most likely to spend the longest days outdoors – young people.

One of the first cinemas to install refrigeration was the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, whose 1919 ad in the Chicago Tribune bragged: ‘Our Freezing Plant (Just installed) Removes the Temper from Temperature’ and went on to claim, ‘It provides fresh and exhilarating air, chilled to any degree of coolness necessary to our patron’s comfort.’ While many enjoyed the new, ‘exhilarating’ experience, some complained that forcibly proving the existence of an AC system rather than the patron’s comfort was the priority.

In the 1930s the launch of the self-contained plug-in AC appliance, the so-called ‘room’ or ‘window’ air conditioner by the De La Vergne Machine Co. transformed AC into a consumer appliance, and seemed to promise affordable domestic comfort cooling, opening up new markets during the Depression and causing great excitement, being dubbed the ‘new radio’. In 1935 GE proclaimed that the new market was worth an astounding $5BN, generating a scramble of new producers and investors, though his turned out to be little more than hot air.

In the war years, comfort cooling was stigmatised as a luxury at odds with wartime stoicism. In May 1942 the War Production Board prohibited the installation of new systems or the manufacture of new equipment solely for personal comfort. Plans were announced to remove existing AC in civilian and government buildings and install them in factories engaged in military production. New York’s Tiffany department store dutifully sent its AC to a factory in Texas, cooling machinists instead of Manhattan’s chic set. Oddly, the bureaucracy itself was very reluctant to give up its cool air in the way it encouraged others to do so. Much of Washington, built on a swamp, had already become ‘climate controlled’ (the Capitol and the White House had been fitted with AC in 1929). Bills that authorised the transfer of government owned equipment to war plants inexplicably usually died in committee.

After the war, perhaps because comfort was now back in vogue, there was an explosion in the AC industry. In 1945 just over 1000 room AC units were built. By the following year this had risen to 30,000. By 1956 it had reached 1.3M. GE’s overheated pre-war prediction began, belatedly, to look like cool calculation.

Central or built-in AC also boomed. It was seen as a way of saving money on home construction costs, eliminating the need for high ceilings, movable sashes and screens and wings that promoted ventilation. 1950s tract housing, with its sealed picture windows and low roof, was a ‘TV–equipped hotbox’ that was uninhabitable without AC. Central AC turned housing itself into a kind of appliance, a factory-made, plug-in white good. Builders also noted that built-in AC was a big selling point, second only to built-in kitchens. By the late 1950s AC was a vital part of new home construction.

As with cinemas, the use of AC in offices was initially sold on the basis of increased efficiency. Tests in 1946 suggested that typists were 24% more productive in an AC office. Before AC it was not unusual for firms to have to close their offices early in the summer. In 1957 a survey of 376 companies revealed that 88% rated AC the most important item for office efficiency (even today, where most offices are air conditioned, it is estimated that $20BN is lost through poor AC).

AC also allowed the construction of the modern office ‘block’. As urban land became more scarce, H, T and L-shaped buildings, designed to maximise natural ventilation and light became too expensive. The interior, dark and airless ‘deep space’ of block construction could be lit with the new, low-heat, low-cost fluorescent strip-lighting and ventilated with AC. Thus office AC turned many city workers into troglodytes labouring inside huge mountains; or astronauts floating in ‘deep space’. The outside appearance of the modern skyscraper, with its profligate use of (greenhouse) glass, was also a product of the voodoo of AC – the use of ceiling to floor glass at the UN Headquarters in NY in 1953 required an increase in AC requirements of 50%.

The addition of AC to cars (Packard was first in 1938) meant that more and more Americans were ‘bubbling’ from AC offices, to their AC automobiles, to their AC homes. By 1960 there were c.6.5M AC units of all kinds in use. By 1970 more than 24M. The pre-AC methods of staying cool, the outdoor life, eating and sitting on the porch, sipping iced lemonade, began to be forgotten as the seasons were homogenised as man made weather decreed a coast to coast, north to south, perpetual, productive, Puritan Autumn.

This astonishing triumph of America over, well, America, did not come without a price attached – one that was not apparent, however, until the oil crisis of the 1970s. In an effort to wean the US off its dependency on imported oil, President Jimmy Carter banned business and Government offices from setting thermostats lower than 78 degrees on pain of a $10,000 fine. Although this was in fact the optimum setting for AC, most Americans were now so used to comfort cooling that they bridled at the thought that they might not have control over their own personal weather, and ignored the ban. President Nixon a former occupant of the White House had apparently enjoyed turning the thermostat all the way down and then warming himself in front of a roaring log fire – Nixon was probably more in touch with American values than Carter, who was not re-elected and no President ever tried to come between an American and her thermostat again.

Recent blackouts in California have been blamed partly on increased AC use, but the concern today, with much of the rest of the world apparently wanting some of America’s comfort cooling, is that man made weather is affecting the natural variety. The vast amounts of energy used to run AC units produces CO2 emissions, contributing to the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’. Older models of AC units also use CFC refrigerants which are thought to attack the ozone layer. Of course, AC doesn’t actually get rid of heat, it merely pumps it (and the extra heat actually generated by the process) outside. The ambient temperature of Manhattan is estimated to be raised several degrees by AC in the summer, more if you’re waiting for a train on the subway (the trains are icily cooled but the platforms are not, causing your sweaty shirt to give you a chilly shudder when you board your train). Paradoxically, AC makes things warmer.

Arguably, the whole idea of ‘global warming’, which is still a controversial theory, is itself a product of air conditioning – the notion of man being able to control or affect the climate, for good or ill, at all is something that proceeds from the same place as the idea of man-made weather/climate control: human vanity and ingenuity. Undeniably however, AC can make you ill. At its most lethal, poorly maintained AC can give you Legionnaire’s Disease, so-named after an outbreak at a convention for ex-service personnel in Philadelphia USA, in 1976 which killed 34 veterans. Some blame AC for the rise of so-called ‘Sick Building Syndrome’, where unfortunate workers are subject to regular headaches and dry throats and tiredness, though this is more likely to be the case if the system is not working properly.

On the other hand it’s equally undeniable that AC saves and prolongs millions of lives: older people used to die in their thousands during heatwaves in the US; now their main worry when the mercury rises is a power cut or a malfunction, or, as happened to one unfortunate, befuddled and now very much expired American pensioner recently, turning on the heat instead of the AC.

In the UK, if aircon is installed at all, broken and inadequate systems are the norm. Some estimates put the figures at a luddite 90%. Vent ducts are not cleaned, dead pigeons frequently scent the air intakes, refrigerant is not recharged. The British are clearly conflicted about AC – they want it, but sabotage it; perhaps because the consistency of man-made weather would rob them of their principal topic of conversation and complaint. A friend of mine who works in a luxury supermarket in Central London tells me the AC has never worked properly there since the shop opened fifteen years ago. Despite yearly visits from engineers and expensive changes of equipment, staff and customers still sweat through the summer and the expensive imported chocolate on the checkout shelves sighs and wilts. But at least they’re not American.

Practically speaking, there simply isn’t the infrastructure and the culture here necessary to sustain AC (though this may change if we experience more heatwaves like the recent record busting one). Principally, there simply aren’t enough trained technicians; perhaps because of our attitude towards consumer engineering and perhaps because there isn’t the incentive. At the ACCA Convention in Palm Springs I met several keen young air conditioning students from the Pennsylvania School of Technology. Maurice, a 7 ft tall black guy on a two-year AC course, was going to be a professional footballer, but opted instead for the AC business. ‘I helped out an uncle of mine one summer and got real excited by it.’ By the technology? ‘No, more the money side, actually! There’s a LOT of money to be made in aircon!’

Professor Lowell Catlett, a ‘futurologist’ from New Mexico State University who delivered the opening address at the Convention agrees. ‘The average American living below the official poverty line has more washing machines, dishwashers, TVs than middle class people did a generation ago.’ He sees AC as a part of the rising expectations of an ageing society. ‘In 1900 life expectancy was just 42 years, now it’s 76. Engineering rather than medicine is responsible for that, in the form of sewerage, water and food preparation. And the older our population gets, the more it is going to expect – and require – air conditioning.’ AC is, in other words, going to be part of the life-support system necessary to sustain our unnaturally prolonged lives. He also points to the growth in single-parent – i.e. single woman – households and suggests that this is something the AC industry, which is very male (there are few women at the Convention) should respond to.

Some already are. I ask Rick Roetken, Brand Manager for Carrier, the oldest and most prestigious AC manufacturer in the US, standing beneath a large, flowery poster advertising Puron, a new environmentally friendly Carrier-made coolant, if AC is no longer about ‘man-made weather’? No longer about conquering Nature but living with Her? ‘Yes, I think that’s right,’ he says. ‘In the future AC has to be seen to be working more with the environment and more sensitive to people’s needs and concerns’.

Ironically, Rick himself is slightly nostalgic about a time before AC ruled the world. ‘When I was a kid growing up in Indiana in the 1970s, we’d only have the AC on 2-3 days a year. My dad would announce that we had to close up the house and then he’d switch it on. It was a big deal, and kinda cool. Now it’s on 24hrs a day and we never open the windows.’

Rick’s wistfulness for a time of open windows is shared by at least one other attendee at the ACCA Convention, Ted an AC contractor from the border Southern State of Maryland. ‘Aircon is much more common now in Maryland than when I was a boy,’ he says. ‘Back then we used to sit out on the porch when we came home from school or work, chatting to the neighbours and watching the world go by. That doesn’t happen any more. No one knows their neighbours any more,’ he says regretfully. Then he adds, as if it had only just dawned on him, ‘I don’t know my neighbours.’

Air conditioning is undoubtedly an American triumph, a terrestrial form of space travel – ‘Apollo 13’ after all, is a film about a bunch of guys struggling to fix their glorified AC unit. It has however, forever changed what it means to be an American – America’s gregarious ingenuity can be oddly alienating. More to the point, ‘American air’ and ‘climate control’ may also be helping to change forever the setting of the giant thermostat on Spaceship Earth, nudging it up several degrees in the next hundred years.

And making aircon even more desirable.

The ‘new macho’ – just older, saggier, daggier metrosexuality

ABC News tells us that ‘Metrosexual is out – macho is in’

It offers little evidence of this assertion other than a product-placement style interview with the editor of a glossy men’s magazine who will clearly say anything to sell his mag, including stuff like ‘the new macho is the old macho’ (since when did the old macho buy glossy men’s lifestyle magazines?), and citing ‘killing spiders’ as the test of machismo.  But we’ll let that pass. After all, this is the Twenty First Century and no one has any standards any more.  I certainly don’t.

So I Google the ‘anti-metrosexual’ magazine blazing a trail for ‘the new macho’ trend – which according to ABC News is sweeping the culture – and lo and behold! the butch, heroic machomag in question turns out to be a magazine for middle-aged metrosexual men in denial trying to turn fat into muscle and stay young-looking. 

Spiders have clearly got nothing to worry about.

Sporno: where sport and porn meet and produce a spectacular money shot

Just in time for the World Cup the July issue of the re-launched OUT features an essay by yours truly on the post-metrosexual pornolization of sport – or what I dub ‘sporno’.  Here’s a (breathless) taster:

‘Sportsmen on this side of the Atlantic are increasingly openly acknowledging and flirting with their gay fans, a la David Beckham and Freddie Ljunberg (the man who actually looks the way Beckham thinks he looks). Both these thoroughbreds have posed for spreads in gay magazines and both have welcomed the attention of gay fans because they “have great taste”.

More than this, they and a whole new generation of young bucks, from twinky soccer players like Manchester United’s Alan Smith and Cristiano Ronaldo, to rougher prospects like Chelsea’s Joe Cole and AC Milan’s Kaka, keen to emulate their success, are actively pursuing sex-object status in a post-metrosexual, increasingly pornolized world.

In other words: they’re not just sports stars, but sporno stars’

You can read the full essay here.

Superman and his Supersexuality

Is Superman gay?

This ‘pressing’ question about what the Man of Steel does with his flying package (‘is it a bird? is it a plane?’) when it’s not held in by industrial strength spandex seems to be enormously exercising the media in the run up to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

All this shocking speculation about Superman’s Supersexuality has been prompted by a not very shocking article in an American gay magazine about gay interest in superheroes.  It didn’t actually claim Superman was gay but was cannily given the front-page headline ‘How gay is Superman?’, and the wagging tongues got wagging.  Things have reached such a pitch that Singer, (openly gay) director of the upcoming blockbuster, felt it necessary to deny Superman is gay and stated ‘he’s probably the most heterosexual character in any movie I’ve ever made.’

Now, leaving aside the fact that Singer is perhaps best know for directing The X-Men, starring characters with names such as ‘Wolverine’ and ‘Magneto’ and ‘Storm’ who sound like gay pornstars, he and his studio are no doubt worried that talk of Superman being gay might keep the teen boys away from the box-office, and no blockbuster can afford to offend the delicate sensibilities of teen boys.

I’ve never met Superman (though I keep looking), and I haven’t seen the new movie yet (I don’t use Bittorrent), so I can’t really comment. But of course, I won’t let that stop me:

Let me just say this: in my expert opinion Superman is not gay. OK?

But he’s probably not terribly straight eitherIf he was, would he use the word ‘super’? Would he work out?  Would he wear stretchy-tight clothes and a rubber cape? Would he oscillate between being ‘mild-mannered’ and brazenly exhibitionistic? Would he use so much product in his hair?  Would he stay single? And smooth? And perpetually 25?

Whichever way his manhood swings, whether his preference is hetero, homo, or bi (the third possibility that straights and gays, as usual, seem equally keen to overlook), Superman is clearly, alarmingly, metrosexual.

This seems to be the fate of all superheroes when made into contemporary Hollywood Blockbusters.  As I pointed out in a 2002 piece for Salon.com (‘Meet the metrosexual’) about the just-released ‘Spider-Man’, the movie:

…offers us the kinky, fetishistic spectacle of a geeky ordinary young man whom no one notices transformed into a raving metrosexual before our very eyes. Apparently injected with steroids and ecstasy by a gay spider, he admires his new buffed body with widening eyes in the mirror, dresses up in a tight lycra gimp suit and runs around a lot on all fours with his arse in the air, after having setting up (Web?) cameras to record his (s)exploits. Peter Parker/Tobey Maguire employs designer drugs, clothes, perverse sexuality and multimedia technology to get people to look at him as he swings between the billboards and skyscrapers from what appears to be his own hardening jism.

In one memorable bondage/mummification-resonant scene he hangs upside down in his gimp suit while Kirsten Dunst peels off the lower part of his mask to kiss him, before replacing it: a perfect example of the new power dynamic between metrosexual men and women and how metrosexual men have to be the center of attention. We’re supposed to believe that Tobey is motivated by old-fashioned virtues of social concern and love for Kirsten but we don’t believe it for a moment. Nor does, in the end, the movie: Kirsten finally offers herself but Tobey declines, realizing that she would come between him and his real love: his metrosexual alter ego in the Day-Glo gimp suit.

Queer Eye For the Tory Guy

When, I wonder, am I going to receive my fee for my makeover of the Tory Party?  Metrodaddy, alias yours truly, appears to have been cast as the (reluctant) queer eye of the British Tory guy. 

As yet another sign of the total mainstreaming of male aesthetics, that once reliably retrosexual party that seems to have gone raving metrosexual – or, rather, ‘mincing metrosexual’ in the inadvertently revealing words of its chairman this week

First they elect a new, young, (relatively) stylish, rather moisturised, leader in the form of David Cameron.  Practically the first thing he does, before his trip to Norway to watch glaciers melt, before holding a shadow cabinet meeting/photo opp. in his lovely designer kitchen, is to announce that the The Queen is Dead by The Smiths is his favourite album of all time.  (I can’t help wondering if I’d chosen, for some inexplicable reason, to write a biography of Holly Johnson rather than that alternative 80s ‘Iron Lady’ Morrissey, whether Cameron would have named Welcome to the Pleasuredome as his favourite album instead.)

Then an ‘A list’ of parliamentary candidates is announced – featuring women, gays, non-whites, and celebs – as a kind of new, designer political wardrobe for Cameron, fast-tracking the Conservatives’ change of image from something retro into something more modern, more fashionable, more desirable, more… metro.

Pre-eminent among these ‘A-listers’ is metrotory poster boy Adam Rickitt, who despite his name, is an anything but mal-nourished chap whose major claim to fame until now is that he used to take his shirt off a lot on the soap Coronation Street to show us his boyish six-pack and pecs.  Kind of a Woolworths pick ‘n’ mix Marky Mark, or, perhaps more to the point, a BHS soft-furnishings department Joe Dallesandro (Warhol hustler and hunky, hairless shirtless cover star for The Smiths’ debut, eponymous album).  Not surprisingly, a gay character in that soap fell for him and tried to kiss him  – a pass which was, after a bit of hesitation, rejected by Adam’s hetro metro character.

Given the awful looks, shape, clothes and halitosis of most British politicians I reckon Rickitt’s guaranteed a buff majority at the next election as thousands of young women and gays hitherto unfamiliar with the arcane and occult practise of voting rush to the polls to put a big kiss next to his name – and a prominent front bench position.  After all, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate his pretty blond features properly in the backbenches, would you? 

What on earth would this lad with no previous political experience be minister for, I hear you demand?  Well, there’s a host of possibilities that his talents bring to mind.  Such as… Minister for Looking At.  Or Minister for Working Out.  Or Minister for Men’s Underwear.  Or Minister for Decorating the House.  Failing that, he can just bring along his own portfolio – of photographs. 

Politics has already been successfully aestheticized by New Labour – once the proletarian party of production and supply-side, now the party of consumption and seduction – and rendered skin deep.  Why not politicians?  At least then we’d have something nice to look at while we’re being lied to.

Little wonder though that die-hard, unmoisturised retrosexuals within the Tory Party are rather unhappy with what’s happening to the party that used to bathe once a week and used a whiffy flannel the rest of the time; the party that used to regard that gay-baiting crank with the pudding-bowl haircut Normo Tebbit as the summit of everything desirable in a man; the party that introduced legislation in the form of Section 28 to ban schools from promoting the use of male hair care products and gymnasiums.  Little wonder they have been making loud noises – mostly of buttock clenching.

Old-timer Tory chairman Francis Maude has tried to reassure them, to soothe their fevered brows and cramping sphincters, and counteract some unfortunate ‘misapprehensions’.  Alas, his Freudian unconscious sabotaged him and revealed his own anxieties about the policy he himself is having to implement in an hilarious slip of the tongue, or some such fleshly organ.  Appearing on Toryradio this week, railing against the wilder rumours, he found himself saying:

“The idea that what we’re actually trying to do is insert mincing metrosexuals into gritty northern marginal seats is complete rubbish.”’

Err, thanks for that, Frankie.  A choice of words and images that will definitely put all unsavoury and uncomfortable thoughts of bumming out of the minds of Tory stick-in-the-(non-beautyfying)-muds who can’t stop worrying about it – at the same time as reassure the public that the Tory Party has really changed (its underwear).

I suspect however that most self-respecting metrosexuals would probably rather not insert themselves into ‘gritty seats’ anyway.  Certainly not without a shower and a sack and crack wax first. 

More to the point, that colourful outburst would seem to confirm that Cameron is inserting ‘mincing metrosexuals’ into safe seats instead.  I told you we’d be seeing Adam on the front benches soon, sunbathing in a thong.  [Update: In fact, Rickitt has applied to replace former Tory Leader Michael Howard as MP for Folkestone and Hythe at the next election.  On one Tory web forum he’s described by an apopleptic Tory activist as a ‘ghastly hermaphrodite’.]

Actually, despite the depressing, patronising view of the North held by Southerners such as Maude and the BBC (e.g. ‘The Street’) as some kind of Gulag for people who use short vowel sounds, I can assure you, as someone who has recently moved back to the North from the South, that working class northern men in this largely – thanks to Mrs T – post-industrial region are even more keen than Southerners on fake tan, hair gel, designer clothes and gym-bodies and least likely to apologize for it.  The centre of the nearest big city to me, ‘gritty northern’ Newcastle, is full of them milling if not mincing around wearing expensively little on a Friday night – Newcastle even officially calls its giant shopping mall the ‘Metro Centre’, in case local lads didn’t know where to go when they get their pay-packets. 

If the Tories want to insert themselves into more seats in the North, and God knows they can hardly occupy fewer than they do at the moment, they could do worse than recruit a few more Adam Rickitts.  If they want to seduce younger voters, the Tories need to convince them that they’ve abandoned the ‘Victorian Values’ – and aesthetics – of the Iron Lady and embraced the ‘softer’, ‘selfish’, ‘superficial’  and ‘vain’ aspect of the consumer revolution she ushered in but tried, like most Tories, to disavow. 

That, in other words, the Tories are something that young people might actually want to wear.  Or even look at.

Damn – I’ve done it again.  I’ve given the Tories more consultancy advice.  For nothing.

How about a signed poster of Adam Rickitt canvassing himself in the altogether and we’ll call it quits?