Careerists, Capitalists and Creeps

‘Britain’s New Power Elites’, Hywel Williams (Constable, £12.99)

by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 14 May 2006)

‘Among the most significant achievements of the modern British elite,” argues Hywel Williams, limbering up in the early pages of his polemic against Britain’s rulers in the form of an incompetent executive class, a meaningless political class and a degraded professional class, “is the promulgation of the essentially ideological idea that Britain is an anti-ideological place. Criticism of its fundamental features can therefore be dismissed as the ravings of the marginalised – those whose temperaments fail to show the kind of finesse required in order to understand Britain and the British – and who need not therefore be admitted into the contest and the debate.”

Mr Williams, I hope, will take it as a compliment that I found his temperament singularly failing in finesse. I don’t know whether the author of the classic text of the 1990s implosion of Toryism, Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall, 1992-1997, world historian, and contributor to the Guardian’s Op-Ed pages is a marginal figure or not, but I certainly enjoyed his ravings.

Less of a book than a steel-toe-capped kicking of the great and the good, Britain’s Power Elites is an invigorating volume of spleen and informed invective of the kind that is in short supply in this enervated, “ironic” age. A donnish punk, Williams argues that the problem with our contemporary political culture, the biggest symptom of its deathly monopolisation by careerists, capitalists and creeps, is precisely its deadening politeness. The fact that Williams is so learned only makes his aphoristic assault all the more enjoyable.

On politics:

“… a good profession for people who are mentally agile, intellectually incurious and physically robust. The political elites’ conformist agreement that it is the drama of personal jealousy which explains the very foundation of politics is a conventional judgment which suits all those personal traits.”

On lobby correspondents:

“Worker bees, if fed on royal jelly, may become queen bees, and so the point of this journalistic class is not so much to expose as to honour the greater power it observes and tries to decipher.”

On bankers:

“The perverse, but almost universally accepted, practice within elite banking circles sanctifies the position of those who are in power while also protecting them from those market shocks that they are otherwise so eager to elevate as the justification for capitalism.”

Even when his malicious metaphors over-reach themselves it’s still enjoyable, in a scatological fashion:

“If Churchill finally made it to No 10 at 65, then there’s always hope for the rest who, all greased-up, can slide their way up and down the back-passages of elite ambition while waiting for recognition to wind its way towards them.”

Maybe it’s his refusal to hide his braininess and reading, maybe it’s his chippiness, but I suspect that Williams is one of that dying breed, a grammar-school boy: “The dominant tone of the new legal elite is that of a clever philistinism,” he complains, “which is not that different from the dominant tone of British broadcasting.”

He contrasts previous generations of grammar-school elites such as Roy Jenkins, Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, and Edward Heath who openly displayed their intellectual prowess, their meritocratic certainty, with modern power elites “who have to play the game of ostentatious anti-elitism in order to maintain, covertly, their elite power”. Discretion, like talking about democracy all the time (“press your red buttons now!”) but making sure that it never happens, is a very British way of doing business.

Williams is particularly scathing about the egghead collaborators:

“What typifies the British intellectual class… is its successful absorption within the power elites to a point at which its thoughts and stances are reified and appear to be simply the neutral observation of questions of fact.”

Conservative intellectuals come in for a special drubbing:

“All have failed to observe, or chosen not to see, how powerful is the thrust of monopoly in capital’s command of the world, and how the urge to create larger and larger units is the true lifeblood of its existence and its motive for being.”

Well, of course. That would be the ultimately ideological and therefore ultimately un-British impoliteness. Dear boy, it would be practically Marxist!

Although he hardly mentions the German curmudgeon, Williams’ central thesis is rather Marxoid. He identifies the problem with our eviscerated political and professional culture as being caused by the total dominance of international finance capital in the form of The City. Capital has swallowed everything, but, he argues, this is hardly acknowledged. In the 1980s, the money men conducted a quiet and stunningly successful coup d’etat, moving smartly into the power vacuum created by the collapse of ideological politics and faith in the State. This revolution was so successful that most aren’t aware of it; those that are, the political, professional and legal elites, are largely at their beck and call – and in their pay. The financial elites are out of control and in control.

There are no other elites to stand in their way because all other institutions are now effectively their servants. The old political elites are “front of house” flunkeys, while the money men themselves, with their “offshore” interests and allegiances, get on with the global business of making billions.

It’s why an actor and failed rock star is our Prime Minister. It’s why the first thing the first Labour Chancellor in 18 years did was abandon his main economic lever, the setting of interest rates, to the Bank of England, when he started work in 1997. It’s also why Labour ministers marry dodgy international financiers; after all, this is no more nor less than what New Labour has done.

This, above all, is the reason for the stultification of British politics which so enrages Williams. It is polite, mediocre and tedious because it doesn’t matter. “Britain has allowed its power elites to effect a transformation which amounts to the degradation of an entire country,” he explains; a statement that should shock people into recognition, but which will probably be interpreted merely as proof of his shocking faux pas.

The Metrosexual isn’t Dead, He’s Just Power-Napping on the Sunbed

The Times recently ran a feature by Andrew Billen called ‘Metrosexual R.I.P.?’ wondering whether the metrosexual was now dead in the wake of the recent closure of Conde Nast men’s shopping magazine Cargo.  The piece below by yours truly ‘This trend’s not dead – just dead common’ ran alongside.

I wasn’t shown Billen’s piece before penning mine.  Now that I have, there are a few things I’d like to point out:

  1. Metrosexuals are not female-friendly New Men with pectoral muscles. They could be new mannish; but they could equally be very, very toxic bachelors.  See the film version of American Psycho.
  2. Who apart from marketers trying to get a mention in a newspaper as having discovered ‘the hot new thing that’s replacing metrosexuality!’ actually uses witless monikers such as ‘ubersexual’ and ‘heteropolitan’?  By contrast the metrosexual is a cultural and sociological phenomenon.  You can point to him in the street – and people do.  (And he’s flattered by the attention.)  ‘Ubersexuals’ and ‘heteropolitans’, if they exist at all outside of particularly tedious marketing meetings, just sound like metrosexuals in denial.
  3. Whatever the people running them might say, the ‘blokey’ magazines Nuts and Zoo are clearly metrosexual.  Not so much in content as concept.  They are a product – gossipy weeklies – that until now only women bought.  Like moisturiser.  Retrosexual men would have no need of a magazine that breathlessly tells them how to be a bloke. They would be too busy being a bloke and going fishing with their dad. Mediated, commodified masculinity is one of the hallmarks of metrosexuality. Rather than proof of its demise, the phenomenal success of Nuts and Zoo – and their own admitted underestimation of their readerships appetite for grooming and fashion editorial – is more proof of the mainstreaming of metrosexuality.
  4. A week or so after running the ‘R.I.P.’ article The Times ran this piece comparing and contrasting a metrokid and his retrodad, which illustrated rather eloquently how the younger generation has been totally metrosexualised, often to the bafflement of their dowdy dads.  Retrosexual R.I.P.?

This trend’s not dead – just dead common

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in The Times, April 7, 2006)

On the day I was asked to write about the “death” of the metrosexual, I visited the gym. A group of lads in fashionable sportswear with those fussy pop-idol hairdos was in the changing room. “Bugger!” cursed one. “I’ve forgotten me hair gel and moisturiser.” “Don’t worry, mate,” replied two of his buddies, almost in unison, “you can use mine.”

This wasn’t in metropolitan London or Manchester, mind, but North Yorkshire.

The metrosexual isn’t dead, he’s just dead common. He’s so mainstream, even in rural England, that he’s hardly worthy of comment any more. Men’s shopping magazines may come and go, but male vanity isn’t going back in the closet, even a particularly well-stocked one. A whole generation of young men has been so metrosexualised that the guys don’t even know that they should be ashamed of themselves. Unless, of course, they haven’t spent enough time and money on their appearance.

Metrosexuality has won. It’s got your children. A recent survey of 2,000 teenage males in the UK found that, on average, boys admitted to looking in the mirror ten times a day. And 96 per cent of these narcissists used deodorant, 90 per cent hairstyling products, 50 per cent moisturisers and 25 per cent said they “might have plastic surgery”.

This is a generation that has been immersed in metrosexuality since birth. Born after the New Romantic gender-benders, after Nick Kamen’s seminal strip in the Levi’s launderette ad, and before a young buffed hairless Marky Mark got his designer lunch packet out, in the past few years they’ve been exposed to metrosexmania: the media’s insatiable craving for metrosexuals and articles about male manicures, cosmetics and spas. Is it any wonder they turned out like this?

Look at their heroes — go on, they live to be looked at. The most famous metrosexual poster boy, David Beckham, may be out of fashion in the UK, but mostly because the thirtyish footballer has been upstaged by a younger generation of metro-athletes for whom male vanity is just a fact of life: Freddie Ljungberg looks like the man Becks thinks he is. Despite their huge salaries, the entire Chelsea FC squad, led by Fabulous Frankie Lampard, seems to be moonlighting as male strippers. Even rugby, once the sport of hairy beer monsters, has gone raving metro. Pretty boy Gavin Henson recently admitted on national TV to the self-confessed metro chat-show host Jonathan Ross that he shaves his legs, uses moisturiser and fake tan before a match — to “look good for his team-mates”. And this guy is Welsh!

Metrosexuality has gone so mainstream that even the new love-me-or-love-me leader of the once reliably retrosexual Conservative Party, David Cameron, seems a little bit . . .moisturised. Things have gone so far and so fey that James Bond has succumbed. Where Sean Connery was a hirsute beefy playboy, Daniel Craig is a worked-out, depilated, exfoliated suck-cheeked GQ model.

It’s 12 years since I outed the metrosexual as an attractive young dandy about town who might be straight or might be gay but had clearly taken himself as his own love object. The triumph of metrosexual liberation has since been so complete, so terrifying, even in the provinces, that masculinity will never be the same again. Or at least, it won’t suffer flaky skin again. “Real” masculinity, whatever that is/was, has been replaced for ever by aestheticised, mediated masculinity. The soul of metrosexuality, the desire to be desired, once considered the feminine quality par excellence, is something that today’s Dorianesque males clearly possess, or are possessed by.

Paradoxically, it’s those who embraced metrosexuality as an elite identity who are the most shocked by all this. Now that most males are a little bit metro and the younger generation très metro, there’s nothing terribly special about being metro. It’s just — aargh! — ordinary. The immaculately turned-out and ravishingly fragranced paradox of the metrosexual is that he’s now as naff and redundant as he is adorable and indispensable.

Mark Simpson’s Inside Story on the US Army’s Gay Porn Scandal

The current (May) issue of the proudly metrosexual Details magazine includes an ‘undercover’ exclusive by yours truly on the globally-reported gay porn scandal involving paratroopers from the elite 82nd Airborne, ‘America’s Honor Guard’.

Billed charmingly at the top of the front cover as:


A couple of years ago my buddy and The Queen is Dead co-author Steve Zeeland tipped me off to the existence of, the then little-known military porn website now at the centre of the scandal. Ever the over-keen observer of masculine trends, metrodaddy travelled to North Carolina to meet Dink Flamingo, the man behind ActiveDuty and find out more about straight men ‘acting gay’ – this time in the form of mansex rather than manicures.

For contractual reasons I can’t reveal more about what happened here: if you feel the need to know you’ll have to buy, beg or borrow a copy of the highly fragranced men’s fashion magazine to find out all the (slightly less fragranced) ‘details’. Let me just say that Dink is a real character and his military models real friendly.

The piece also looks at why mostly straight, in some cases married, elite military men would get involved in gay porn, despite the US military’s explicit ban on appearing in skin-flicks – not to mention your actual homosex. And why they might actually have less of a problem with it than straight civilian men.

Why, in other words, fighting men might not be pussy about dick.

It also reveals that there have been numerous gay porn scandals involving the US military since the 1970s, and uncovers evidence that the seven paratroopers charged by the US Army over the scandal have been unfairly scapegoated – that this has been going on for many years, probably with the Army’s knowledge, and involves many more than the seven paratroopers, ‘isolated to one unit’, claimed categorically by the Army as the ‘only ones’ involved.

Homos and soldiers, it seems, can’t stay away from one another. Certainly homos can’t get get enough of soldiers. It was Marcel Proust who observed a hundred years ago that:

“A homosexual is not someone who likes other homosexuals, but someone who on seeing a soldier immediately wants him for a friend”.

Perhaps in this less literary, less innocent, more mediated age this should now be modified to: “…immediately wants him for a porn star.”

Brokeback Mountain on Ice

Apparently, Brokeback Mountain is now available on DVD.

Save yourself some money and watch this clip instead. It’s free, it’s a lot more fun, you get six cowboys instead of two, they don’t age, none of them get tyre-ironed, they have a lot more sexy moments and there’s no mumbling dialogue. Plus the soundtrack is a little more upbeat.

Oh, and it lasts about thirty years less than that tedious, mawkish film.

The Trouble With Men

Why can’t gay men grow up? Why can’t they get themselves a nice cat instead of behaving like dirty dogs? Why can’t they listen to Radio Four more instead of trawling the net for sex? Why don’t they get a pipe and slippers instead of thongs and crystal meth? Why can’t they stop being so damn undomesticated and be more… lesbian?

And why oh why can’t gays settle down with nice Simon Fanshawe, especially when he’s done so much for them? Surely they could have drawn straws and allocated him somebody? Or maybe set up a rota?

The Trouble With… Gay Men TV polemic presented by Fanshawe recently on BBC3, took ‘gay men’ to task for still ‘behaving like rebellious teenagers’ despite now ‘being accepted as equals by society’ and was one of the funniest programmes I’ve seen in ages. Unfortunately for comedian-turned-busybody Fanshawe, the humour was mostly unintentional.

There’s not really much point in seriously dealing with his argument as there wasn’t one, instead there was just an hour-long Grumpy Old Gay Man Special in which Fanshawe went round London and Brighton’s gay scene feebly tutting and harrumphing at gay men’s vanity, promiscuity, drug-use, and failure to settle down and make curtains – despite all the sterling work people like him and the Stonewall Group have done to make homosexuality respectable and suburban.

At one point, instead of even pretending to offer an argument, Fanshawe merely wandered shiftily around the dodgems on Brighton pier while a lot of headless statistics about gay drug use and STD infection rates were flashed on the screen. Great telly, that.

Even this witless approach might have worked – after all, no one could seriously deny that the gay scene is founded on questionable habits, and even the keenest hedonist tires of his vices from time to time. But only if Fanshawe hadn’t presented it. 

Hilariously, this middle-aged moral mary moaning about muscle marys was the best argument for a life of untrammelled irresponsibility, superficiality and fleshly obsession. I’ll bet that after the programme aired the gay gyms, saunas and back-rooms in London had a major rush on, and crystal-meth dealers were working overtime.

Even I, who recently moved to North Yorkshire in part to get away from urban gayness – and also give it a chance to get away from me – felt the urge to change into something less comfortable and take a taxi all the way to Soho.

More to the point, it became rapidly apparent that this paragon of the community who kept denouncing gay men’s failure to ‘grow up’ was himself suffering from a form of arrested development. Clearly he’d never progressed beyond the point of being the bossy fat girl at school with the clipboard who thought they were God because they’d be put in charge of the school dinner queue.

And what was all that whining about the lack of ‘role models’? Why should gay men have someone to copy? Why should they be so special?  Grow up and do it yourself, like everyone else has to these days.

Now, I’m all in favour of more self-criticism in the gay world, and being beastly to gays is something I’m rather fond of. After all I did edit Anti-Gay back in 1996, the book which gave a bunch of chippy non-heterosexuals the opportunity to take on the sacred orthodoxies of the gay world and gay identity, or at least the gay press, and generally have a good whinge. (And which was, funnily enough, violently denounced by the gay press).

But this programme wasn’t taking on mindless conformity, gay self-censorship, or feelgood propaganda. Instead it seemed to be about one middle-aged middle class man’s exasperation at how gays have let him down by being so, well, gay, and his corresponding desperation to prescribe a one-sized-fits-all homo-counties identity. Fanshawe is only exercised by gay bad habits because he’s so transparently even more desperate for respectability than he is for a boyfriend.

Hence the shameless mugging to camera during his visit to a gay sauna, pretending to be shocked by a sling, or not knowing what ‘watersports’ means. Who were the appalled-of-Tunbridge-Wells looks for? The gay men the programme was ostensibly aimed at? The gay men who apparently spend all their time in saunas like this? Clearly not.

Ironically, the people that Fanshawe was really addressing – straight TV producers looking for a nice respectable gay presenter and ‘role model’ – also know what slings and watersports are, and in fact were probably lying in one being peed on whilst they watched the programme.

Again and again Fanshawe showed himself as someone with an almost endearing naivety as he went around posing as the adult voice of the reality principle. Visiting a Mr Gay UK heat he dismissed the oiled-up contestants as ‘superficial’, ‘pathetically deluded’ and ‘vain’. I wonder if he’s taken a look at young straight men lately. In fact, it was blindingly obvious that the main problem with the gays he was talking to was not that they were vain, but that they had nothing to be vain about – a skinny bunch of munters who would be laughed out of the gym by most straight lads.

And what was Fanshawe’s answer to all this vain, promiscuous, drug taking? An inspirational trip to the feet of ‘role model’ Chief Inspector Brian Paddick, ‘one of the most senior policemen in the country! And he’s gay!’ during which Fanshawe made it embarrassingly clear he’d love nothing more than to be Mrs Paddick and attend the Chief Inspector’s Balls.

Strangely, there was no mention of that troublesome ex who went to the papers to proclaim he and Paddick often took drugs together in the Chief Inspector’s house, and who also claimed that Paddick was a regular visitor to gay saunas (Paddick has denied both these claims).

Then came the chaste climax of this hour-long programme, the summit of everything that Fanshawe says gays should be aiming for and the answer to all the problems he had decried: two chubby inoffensive gays in a country house choosing what chocolate cake they were going to have at their registration reception.

Now, I’m sure they’re nice enough fellas, but if they had known that they were going to be flaunted by Fanshawe as the ultimate role models for gays everywhere, the compulsory ideal for all – not simply one option amongst many – and the wonder cure for all that meaningless sex, drug use and existential angst then maybe they would have had second thoughts about appearing on this programme. Or at least they might have tried to look a bit happier.

The real problem with gay men, even the campest variety, is that they’re men. Men without wombs in their lives to take responsibility for or slow them down – or give life a point. But instead, lots of testosterone and spunk and spare time. It’s this that makes them homo. Why do so many gay men have so much sex and take so many drugs, often – and this is something Fanshawe utterly failed to acknowledge – even when they are in a relationship?

Because they can.

I’m not particularly recommending promiscuity or drugs – and who, frankly, gives a flying fuck whether I do or don’t. But I can tell you in no uncertain terms that neither Simon Fanshawe, nor Brian Paddick, nor gay registrations, nor even really expensive chocolate wedding cake are going to persuade homos to become neutered heterosexuals.