(PS. Despite appearances, it’s not actually an ad for extra strong condoms – it’s promoting topless spiritual uplift, apparently.)
Page 3 of 36
by Mark Simpson
(Originally appeared on Out.com 18 August, 2016)
We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.
Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.
But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.
As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’
Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.
Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.
According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’
A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’
Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!
Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’
Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.
Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’
Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).
But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.
Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.
It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.
In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.
Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.
Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.
Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.
Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.
Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.
The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.
Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.
Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.
Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.
Mark Simpson on how hard shoulders are being given… the hard shoulder
Hard shoulders don’t sound very inviting – and often look very unloved and untidy. But you may miss them when they’ve gone.
The Transport Secretary just announced that 32 miles of hard shoulder will be axed from the M4 between Hayes and Theale as part of an ‘upgrade’ that converts the hard-shoulder to a fourth lane.
Earlier this year, another twenty miles of hard shoulder disappeared from our motorway network as the latest stretch of ‘smart motorway’ opened on a section of the M1, between junctions 31 near Worksop and 28 near Mansfield.
By way of exchange, the more than 95,000 vehicles a day using it will benefit from an extra, fourth lane – as well 100% CCTV monitoring and information about traffic conditions displayed via overhead electronic variable messaging signs (VMS) – and variable speed limits designed to avoid traffic queues and keep traffic flowing. Journey times should be shorter and more reliable. At least for a few years.
For those experiencing a breakdown, running out of fuel – or a health emergency – there are now ‘refuge’ areas instead of the trusty hard shoulder. However, you need to be careful where your big end goes, or your dodgy lunch, since the refuges are a rather lengthy 2.5KM apart.
You will also have to hope there is no one else already occupying the refuge area (including foreign lorry drivers who reportedly sometimes use them to kip in), since there isn’t a lot of room. Additionally, because they don’t have a slip road, once your car is repaired or your lunch lost, you will have to wait for someone from the Highways Agency to come and stop the traffic to let you out.
This is the future of motorway driving in the UK. In addition to several currently under construction, there are ten more smart upgrades planned across England as part of a £1.5B investment. By 2021 the DoT promises there will be ‘292 extra lane miles added to motorways’. Given that they will be full time all-lane running, this also means that our motorways will permanently lose more than 300 miles of hard shoulder in the next decade or so.
It’s now ten years since the first smart motorway opened in the UK, between junctions 4 and 3A on the M42 in the West Midlands. Back then however they were called ‘managed motorways’.
Perhaps having taken some marketing advice, since 2014 the DoT now calls managed motorways ‘smart motorways’. A smart motorway – which by definition is always better than a ‘dumb’ one – is where active traffic management (ATM) techniques are deployed: these include variable speed limits and hard-shoulder running (either permanently or only at busy times). There are three types: ‘controlled motorway’, ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ and ‘all-lane running’.
A controlled motorway has variable speed limits without hard-shoulder running, such as on the M25 from J27 to J30.
‘Dynamic hard shoulder running’ motorway has variable speed-limits with part-time hard-shouldering in busy periods. These have a solid white line differentiating the hard shoulder from the main carriageway, and overhead gantries displaying a red ‘X’ over the lane when it is closed to traffic. DHSR has been extended to sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6 and M62.
‘All-lane running’, variable speed limits with the hard-shoulder converted to a permanent running lane, can be found on sections of the M6, M62 and M25. This is the new standard for all new smart motorway schemes – ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ seems to have been a softening up exercise, getting the public ready for eliminating hard shoulders altogether on smart motorways.
So why have hard shoulders become suddenly so unnecessary – and so cannibalised by our motorway network?
Because of course smart motorways are much cheaper than road-widening (smart motorways are ‘widened’ within the existing boundaries of the motorway), much less politically and environmentally costly than new motorways, and they are supposed to take much less time to construct. Though people enduring 50mph average speed cameras on the M1 for the past few years while it was ‘smartened’ might disagree.
In 2007 it was estimated that installing ATM on UK motorways would take c.2 years at a cost of £5-15 million per mile – compared with 10 years and £79 million for widening.
Not everyone is convinced that smart motorways are so smart, however. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee recently published some feedback criticisms, such as the distance between refuge areas, and the frequency of gantries (they can be every 500m).
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have also expressed concern that emergency services would take longer to reach an incident – but the Highways Agency rejected this, citing the 5000 miles of dual carriageway that doesn’t have a hard shoulder.
For its part the AA has expressed concerns about breakdowns in lane one, saying it believes that the risk to a vehicle stopped there at night is too great to accept. Then again, perhaps this may be something to do with the fact the AA is not allowed to attend broken down vehicles in a running lane.
Advocates of smart motorways also point to studies which suggest that they’re safer than un-managed motorways with hard shoulders. Though if you’ve ever seen a drowsy articulated lorry ahead of you wander half way across the hard shoulder in a cloud of dust before suddenly turning back onto the main carriageway, it’s difficult not to wonder if the smaller ‘margin’ for error on smart motorways means that it’s just a question of time and mileage before there is a seriously nasty pile-up.
But whatever you or I or even the AA may think of them, smart motorways are here to stay and you’ll be seeing a lot more of them – and fewer hard shoulders. Of course, traffic volumes are only likely to continue to rise, eventually choking the smart motorways – and there won’t be a hard shoulder left to cannibalise.
But at that point a hidden appeal of smart motorways to politicians may reveal itself – with their gantries, CCTV and digital cameras they already have a lot of the infrastructure needed to introduce road charging.
And although unpopular now, when we run out of hard shoulders, charging may seem like the ‘smart’ – or only – option.
Mark Simpson on the tarmac war between cyclists and drivers
Like many drivers, I hate cyclists. They’re in your way. They’re too slow. They’re too erratic. They’re too self-righteous. They get away with murder.
But when I’m on my pushbike, I hate drivers. They’re up your arse. They’re too fast. They’re too aggressive. They’re too impatient. They’re murderers.
So you could say I have a balanced view.
As a cyclist I envy the way that drivers are dry and warm and protected by a metal box, picking their noses. I hate the way they can overtake me without having to break an honest sweat – polluting the environment instead.
As a driver, I envy the freedom and fresh-air healthiness of cyclists, the way they filter up to the front of the traffic queue, and don’t have to pay anything, or take any tests to ride their pushbike in their Day-Glo underwear on Her Majesty’s highway.
And of course, in today’s urban/suburban traffic it’s quite likely that you’ll find yourself at a red light facing the lycra buttocks you took so much trouble to overtake and make taste your exhaust two minutes ago.
When you consider how much running a car costs – and at such moments you really do – this can be a bit humiliating.
Little surprise then that a recent survey of UK drivers found that three quarters of them think that cyclists should have to get a licence before they are allowed on the road alongside cars.
While nearly half (42%) thought that cyclists should only be allowed to use the pavement. This however is currently a fineable offence – though one that seems hardly enforced. When I’m a pedestrian, I hate cars and cyclists.
The survey also found that half of drivers agreed with the statement: ‘Cyclists should all have their saddles confiscated’. Okay, I made that one up.
To be fair to drivers, there are a lot more cyclists around these days, on roads that are a lot more choked – and ‘calmed’, that is, narrowed – than before. It’s increasingly difficult to safely overtake cyclists in urban areas. There are more cycle lanes, but often they’re not used because of poor layout or maintenance.
Sometimes drivers must feel as if cyclists are being used by traffic management planners as 21st Century versions of the guys with red flags that had to walk in front of the first motorcars.
Also, it needs to be admitted that a significant proportion of bi-pedallists don’t seem to think the Highway Code applies to them. And because a license isn’t required to ride a bike, and because a pushbike doesn’t have a registration plate, that’s kind of true.
Yes, cyclists may be fined £30 for jumping a red light – but only if there’s an actual bobby stood on the other side of the lights with time on their hands. Frankly, you’ve more chance of meeting a unicorn than a uniform. Or seeing a cyclist giving hand signals.
Some years ago, in a fit of madness I bought a moped. But I quickly got rid of it when I discovered that it was much slower around town than using my pushbike. Because it was wider and heavier than my bike I couldn’t get to the front of the queue so easily. And because it had a registration I couldn’t always take the ‘shortest route’….
Drivers today have also noticed that cyclists today have become a lot more assertive. 52% of drivers have had an ‘altercation’ with cyclists – and 35% said they had been on the receiving end of ‘road rage’ abuse from the pedal-power people.
Who nowadays often have helmet-cams: ‘YOU’RE ON CAMERA, MATE!!’.
We’ve all seen those shaming YouTube clips of drivers behaving badly, overtaking much too close – the Highway Code stipulates ‘a car’s width’ – and then getting shirty or outright violent because the cyclist shouted at them. Usually in Essex: ‘WHY WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD THEN, YOU F***CKIN C***HNT?!’
A surprising number of drivers seem to be unaware that cyclists are advised to cycle away from the gutter and, according to Transport for London: ‘If the road is too narrow for vehicles to pass you safely, it may be better to ride in the middle of the lane to prevent dangerous overtaking’.
Yes, sometimes there does appear to be a kind of mobile class war going on: the white collar cyclist with almost a passive-aggressive Judge Dredd/Judy complex, chasing after loutish van drivers and goading them into saying or doing something stupid or just criminal on camera.
But generally these clips serve a useful purpose: they allow drivers to see the road from the cyclists’ wobbly, exposed POV. In 2014, 113 cyclists died on our roads. According to a survey conducted last year, cyclists experience a ‘very scary’ incident on average once a week.
And the pedal warrior footage also remind drivers that although they may be riding round in powerful soundproofed, climate-controlled armour with seat-belts and airbags – while the cyclist is just a crumple zone wearing a plastic hat – that there are still potential consequences for their behaviour.
That said, road safety is ultimately the responsibility of all road users. Cyclists and drivers, the vertebrates and invertebrates of the highway, have more in common than just the road they share.
They always think they’re in the right.
Mark Simpson visits Rome’s Foro Italico, home of Mussolini’s Olympic ‘gay gang-bang in Carrara marble’
Off the well-worn tourist track, on the North bank of the Tiber in the Eternal City, hidden away in the Foro Italico sports complex, is a vast, open-air shrine to the idealised male form that most visitors to Rome are unaware exists.
Which is rather odd, seeing as it is essentially a huge – if tastefully done – gay gang-bang in Carrara marble.
The Stadio dei Marmi (‘Stadium of the Marbles’) is an open-air sports stadium completed in 1928 as a training centre for the adjoining Academy Physical Education, as part of a plan for attracting the Olympics to Rome in 1944 – a project blown slightly off-course by the Second World War.
But the Stadio dei Marmi is not a sports stadium like you have ever seen before, outside of sport-themed gay porn.
Fifty-nine statues of classically-styled athletes surround and dominate the stadium with their various states of perfect nakedness – some with fig-leaves, some in jock-straps, many completely starkers except for the occasional boxing glove or cricket bat.
The Foro Italico sports complex which contains Stadio dei Marmi was built during Italy’s fascist period and originally called the ‘Foro Mussolini’ – the Italian dictator took a close personal interest in the design. It was, you might say, a vanity project. The statues of the Stadio dei Marmi were of course meant to glorify Il Duce and Italian fascism and associate him and it with the strength, virility and triumphs of imperial Rome.
However, the sculptors involved seem to have got carried away. To the modern eye this celebration of firm male flesh looks like a spornographic scandal. It really has to be seen – to be experienced – to be believed. Standing in the middle of the stadium surrounded by all that virile marble it’s difficult not to feel you’re the centre of a neo-classical bukkake – the still-fresh white Carrara marble ejaculating against the blue Roman sky.
But it’s when you go around the rear of these god-like chaps that the real fun begins. The bubble buttocks on display are simply divine in their detail. All that carefully symbolised furious activity suddenly becomes irresistible passivity. Not at all what Il Duce had in mind.
One of the sculptors has even autographed one of the statues ‘A. Buttini’. A joke that doesn’t really work in Italian – but I like to think he knew I was coming.
If you squint your eyes against the Mediterranean sun it’s easy to imagine a young Dolce and Gabbana here with a packed lunch, furiously sketching away – getting inspiration for their famous underwear advertising campaigns in the Noughties. The ones starring the Italian rugby, soccer and swimming teams oiled up in the showers. Which were then followed in the Tweens by fellow-Italian Armani’s saucy underpants campaigns starring sporting heroes Beckham, Nadal and Ronaldo with their legs apart on the side of buses.
Perhaps it’s just a trick of the Mediterranean light. Perhaps it’s just an effect of hindsight. But whether or not the 20th Century martial-marble propaganda of Stadio dei Marmi anticipated 21st century hyper-sexualised depictions of male athletes, it’s well worth a visit.
And a really good gawp.
(Originally appeared on Out Traveller, June 2016)
Photos Copyright M. Burns.
Mark Simpson goes to BodyPower, the UK’s biggest fitness expo, & tries not to stare too hard. Even though staring is very welcome.
(Originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph 4 August, 2016)
“Would you like me to take my top off?” is the shy and retiring usual response when you ask a chap here if he minds having his photo taken. Followed by much flexing.
Those that are actually wearing a top. Many are just wearing a flawless tan. Or vests – or ‘tanks’ as they’re now called – of varying degrees of skimpiness and stretchiness. It’s cool out, but shorts and compression leggings abound – as well as tapered gym pants so ‘fitted’ that might as well be compression leggings. When in the National Exhibition Centre make a national exhibition of yourself.
And why not? Shyness is overrated, especially if you’re seriously fit. And most people here – I would estimate the crowd today 80% male and 20% female and mostly under 30 – have spent a great deal of time, sweat and money turning their body into a very glam accessory and want to show it off. Club music is pumping, the vibe is good, the crowd is friendly and not at all standoffish – but everyone is sober and the lights are up, so we can all get a really good look.
Officially called BodyPower, the UK’s largest expo for the UK fitness industry might be dubbed the Ideal Body Exhibition. Or Spornosexual Pride. It’s eye-poppingly clear that the gay love of the idealised male form has been taken up by a generation of (mostly) straight guys. And buffed up even more. In truth, they’ve turned out to be rather better at it than gay men.
Held over a weekend every May at the NEC, Birmingham, BodyPower fills six halls with exhibitors from the booming gym, supplement and sportswear sectors, represented by costly, elaborate stands for brands such as MyProtein, USN, Dynamix, Aesthetix Era and Gymshark. As well as ‘healthy eating’ kitchens, a teeth-whitening booth, posing coaches and PowerPoint lectures in darkened rooms on the science of muscle-building.
For those wanting more action, there are competitions such as the ‘BodyPower Games’, a blizzard of sweaty torsos and flying abs doing furiously fast pull-ups and leg raises. And ‘Fit Factor’, a talent search for new fitness models. Onstage the hopefuls adopt their favourite Men’s Health/Muscle & Fitness poses and grins while a photographer snaps and flashes away – the results instantly projected on a big screen and totally judged.
There’s even a workout area – just in case you felt guilty about missing a training day to go to BodyPower. After all, you’re already wearing your gym gear.
Launched in 2009 by CEO Nick Orton as something of a niche show for bodybuilding and power sports, BodyPower, like our culture’s interest in in the body itself, has grown rapidly, and now caters for ‘the whole fitness spectrum’, attracting over 90,000 visitors this year. Fitness and bodybuilding has left the dank, dark locker room and come out into the light – in really nicely filled-out compression leggings.
One in every seven people in the once pie-scoffing, pint-downing, tab-smoking UK is now a gym bunny – that’s over 9M memberships with a total UK market value estimated to be £4.4B, according to figures published last month by the Leisure Database Company. And the industry shows no signs of hitting a plateau – 224 new gyms opened in the UK in the past year alone.
Likewise, the fitness supplement industry is no longer a discreet corner in Holland & Barretts – protein sales alone are estimated to be worth a ‘swole’ £8B globally by 2017. Fashion gym-wear is also busting out all over, for both women and men: the global ‘athleisure’ – or spornowear – market is estimated to be worth £200B.
But of course, even with a pumped fitness industry, BP would be nothing without pumped punters. And everyone I speak to seems to think they’re getting value for their c.£30 admission.
‘We love it!!’, is the verdict of three cheery, worked-out lads in their late-teens, early 20s, Jack, Jake, and John from Leeds, who got up early on a Sunday morning and drove two and a half hours to be here, their second visit to BP. They also love training, going 5-6 times a week.
Do they get any stick for that from family and friends? ‘All the time,’ says one, the others agreeing. ‘Not so much from family, as they’ve accepted it, but mates are always going: “What you wanna go to the gym for??” With a belly and pint in their ‘ands!’
They’re especially looking forwards to meeting their fitness idol, Calum von Moger, a preposterously handsome 25-year-old Australian three times Mr Universe social media star (2M Facebook followers). Moger, along with preposterously pretty Americans Steve Cook (31 yrs,1M Instagram followers) and Jeff Seid (22 yrs, 1.7M Instagram followers) – both also attending BodyPower, courtesy of their sponsors – represents a new wave of ‘physique’ or ‘aesthetic’ bodybuilders. The aim now is not to be as freakishly huge as possible, but as hench and hot as possible. The so-called ‘cover model’ look. Pro spornos.
Thanks to social media, these fitness idols, with their downloadable ‘bulk and cut’ diets and ‘boulders like shoulders’ exercise plans, have in many ways become more influential than the magazines that they appear on/in. The Leeds lads tell me they don’t really buy fitness mags, preferring to watch Moger et al’s motivational videos on YouTube instead.
‘You’re looking pretty shredded, man!’ says Steve Cook to a 20-something male audience member in a particularly draughty vest – who then gets up and flexes for a cheering audience. Onstage at a packed auditorium at BodyPower, ex pro American football jock Cook, with his narrow waist, dazzling smile, great hair and skin, photogenic personality and unapologetic vanity – he identifies as metrosexual – is the perfectly-formed embodiment of ‘aesthetic’.
He has real star quality. He jokes how his parents took the mirrors out of his bedroom when he was a kid ‘’cause they knew I liked them too much’, banters with a man-bunned member of the audience about a rumour that he had one himself for a while (‘It was a very dark time in my life’), before breaking into an impromptu Whip and Nae-Nae dancing display for his fans crowding round to have their selfie taken with him.
The ‘swole’ selfie moment in many ways the BP money shot – the real attendance draw. Punters patiently queue to have their selfie taken flexing with their online idol – the idealised, ‘motivational’ reflection of themselves as they hope to be.
Sometimes the mirror-image is literal. One lad waiting to meet Jeff Seid at his sponsor’s stand (Pursue Fitness) looks uncannily like his only slightly less pumped twin, right down to the high hair and the wide grin: ‘Some people say I look a bit like him!’ And indeed he does.
And if you happen to actually have a proper, biological twin already, that’s catered for as well. Toby and Adam, two boisterous, buffed, 20-year-old redhead twins in identical vests and caps have travelled from Herefordshire to meet UK muscle model twins Owen and Lewis Harrison (25yrs, c. 400K Instagram followers each), cover stars of this month’s Muscle & Fitness. Though at their sponsor’s stand, BPI supplements, Lewis seems to have gone temporarily AWOL, slightly spoiling the twin twins selfie moment.
With their mirror-image, colourfully-inked, sculpted physiques and hair, shaped eyebrows and perfect skin, the Harrisons are the total ‘aesthetic’ package. Pec pop stars. In fact, these ex junior pro footballers from Manchester look like the ‘totally shredded’ offspring of Beckham and Take That.
They also represent the ultimate gym-buddy fantasy: brothers in muscle, mirroring each other’s achievements. But, I ask, can working and training with your twin ‘bro’, cultivating exactly the same muscle development – part of their savvy branding – lead to some resentment? Even when he doesn’t go AWOL? ‘I bloody ‘ate ‘im’ laughs Owen.
Actually Owen, like most of the ‘brand ambassadors’ I’ve seen today, seems very good- humoured, relaxed, and endlessly patient with the fans, happily co-operating with endless, sometimes slightly breathless photographic requests (and slightly breathless questions from this middle aged journo). Perhaps because he was once a fitness fan himself, though ‘when we started it was all about the fitness mags – that was what inspired us to work on our bods, to be a cover star’.
Then again, these days one tetchy remark to a fan can get you trashed on social media.
At the next stand, protein brand Dynamix, three grinning Asian lads in their mid-twenties from Wolverhampton, Suhi, Jas, Iqqi, are having their selfie taken with a tall, especially v-shaped and of course topless muscle model called Myles Leask – ‘He’s a big inspiration!’.
Leask, 27, standing 6’3” tall, is exceptionally lean or ‘cut’, with your actual ‘shoulders like boulders’ giving him that hyper v-shape, and a blindingly white smile almost as wide. He’s one of the most established and versatile UK muscle models, jetting around the world for expos and photoshoots, fitness and catwalk. He’s seen a lot of changes.
‘The industry and BodyPower has grown so much since I started out seven years ago,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot more money in it now.’ How much does he make? ‘Well, let’s just say it’s not a bad living!’ Like many other pro spornos, he started off as a high-level athlete, but a shoulder injury put paid to his rugby career – before he found another, possibly more lucrative one in fitness modelling.
The rise of social media is the big change. Leask has adapted to it, and the way it means that you are ‘always on’ – not just during photoshoots and expos – but is still sometimes baffled by its intimacies. ‘I did a big glossy photo shoot for Attitude magazine recently. But that got nothing in the way of likes compared to a badly-lit selfie of me brushing my teeth with my top off.’
by Mark Simpson
‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!… And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ – Hamlet
There has been a lot of soul-searching about what it means to ‘be a man’ nowadays. Because no one really knows the answer. Defining ‘man’ and ‘masculine’ in a world in which phallic certainties have dramatically deflated like a dirigible disaster is an endless and probably pointless task. It is the philosopher’s stone of marketing. The quintessence of dust.
Coach, a weekly free UK men’s fitness/lifestyle magazine produced by Dennis publishing (also behind the stalwart spornosexual monthly Men’s Fitness), recently produced some research on the elusive nature of the modern male that defined him by un-defining him. It claimed to show that the ‘alpha male’ stereotype is largely a thing of the past, replaced by an ‘alta male’ who is less interested in money and career than in a healthy work/life balance, self-improvement and personal relationships – ‘higher’ things.
Most of all, he prefers to follow his own lights, rather than compare himself to traditional models of masculinity which are now seen as largely obsolete. Modern man is defined, in other words, by his lack of definition.
Last month I was invited by Coach to appear on a panel in Soho, London discussing the findings. As I said at the time, what most interested me about the research was that, in addition to proving me, in my humble opinion, completely and absolutely right about everything – which is always gratifying – it seemed to finally dispel the over-hyped, almost hysterical, notion that men are undergoing a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Though I’m sure many of the people in crisis about this ‘crisis’ will continue to have a cow about it.
Masculinity has always been in crisis. This has been its ‘natural’, anxious, paranoid, Hamletian state. It’s why it always had something to prove. But probably less so now than ever before.
As I’ve argued for some time, instead of a crisis, what we’re really going through is a revolution. A revolution against mostly restrictive, repressive ideas of what being a man is. A metrosexual revolution – or ‘male lib’. In fact, this revolution has been going on for the last few decades and for most of the younger generation its achievements are largely taken for granted.
Hence the Coach found that: ‘Friendliness, intelligence, being funny, caring are all attributes man wants to be seen possessing – in contrast with toughness and strength of the man of yesteryear.’
This is underlined by how ‘masculine’ is the No.2 quality today’s men attribute to ‘man of yesteryear’ (48%) – but doesn’t make it into the top 12 attributes he likes others to see in him (23%).
This sentiment is loudly echoed in a recent YouGov survey (cited in the Coach research) that found only 2% of 18-24 year olds see themselves as ‘completely masculine’ – compared with 56% of 65+ men.
A whopping 47% (the largest segment) see themselves as 2s on a scale of 0-6, where 0 = completely masculine 6 = completely feminine, while a sizeable 17% see themselves as 3s, i.e. somewhere in the middle. (This is similar to a previous YouGov survey on sexuality which found that most young people in the UK now consider themselves something other than ‘100% heterosexual’.)
For comparison, 14% of 18-24 women see themselves as ‘completely feminine’, which is seven times as many men of the same age who see themselves as completely masculine. While 12% see themselves as 3s.
The remarkably low figures for young men seeing themselves as ‘masculine’ may be influenced by the way that masculinity has had a bad press lately – and indeed the majority of 18-24 men have a negative impression of masculinity, with 42% perceiving it negatively compared to 39% positively. Interestingly, 18-24 women mostly don’t share young men’s critical view of masculinity and are as positive about it as young men are negative (42% positive to 27% negative). In this regard, young men seem to be more ‘feminist’ than young women.
By the way, YouGov’s figures for the US show that American men are much more likely than UK ones to think of themselves as ‘completely masculine’, 42% overall compared to 28%. As I’ve pointed out before, despite being very much involved in its creation, the US has been resistant to metrosexuality and the revolution it represents – or at least terribly conflicted about it. The US is of course the home of ‘manning up’, bearism, ‘bro-nuts‘, and IT professionals who think they’re lumberjacks.
Back in the effete UK, while discussing its findings on men’s attitudes towards masculinity, the Coach report concludes: ‘But even though man is more comfortable with who he is on the inside, there’s a struggle to define ‘masculinity’. (61% find it ‘hard to define exactly what masculinity means’.)
I think this statement is phrased wrongly. There’s no ‘but’ about it. And not much of a ‘struggle’. I don’t think many if not most young men can be bothered. Which is a good thing. It’s precisely because masculinity can’t be easily defined nowadays that men have much more freedom than their forefathers – and can thus be ‘more comfortable with who he is on the inside’. In the past, really only a couple of decades ago, everyone knew what being a man was – and what a ‘regular bloke’ looked like. And who wasn’t.
Although trad masculinity had many admirable qualities, such as self-sacrifice, stoicism and DIY – they were largely based on repudiation. Most of trad masculinity was defined by what men were not – not soft, not tender, not nurturing, not passive, not feminine, not good with colours, not gay. As a result, most young men today don’t ‘struggle’ to define masculinity – rather, they get on with living their lives how they want to live them.
Finally, a slightly tedious word about demographics. The Coach research was based on a focus group of 21 men aged between 22-59 in London, and a survey of 1000 men and women across Britain. Although the focus group apparently included many men originally from around the UK (and some who still lived outside London), it’s probably true that the research – like the magazine itself – had a metropolitan bias.
It also seems to have had, unsurprisingly, a middle class one – 79% of the respondents were ABC1 (compared to c.54% nationally according to 2015 figures). However, I don’t think this invalidates their findings, especially since the aspects of their research which most interested me seem to be backed up by the more demographically representative YouGov research – which when you drill down into their C2DE/ABC1 breakdown, mostly shows no great differences between them in regard to attitudes towards masculinity.
It’s one of the hallmarks of the metrosexual revolution that it cuts across all classes, with working class men often on the coalface of change.
So I checked the register of historical facts, and was shocked and ashamed to discover The Queen is Dead was released thirty years ago.
To commemorate/commiserate three whole decades of vicars in tutus and boys with thorns in their sides – though we’re still waiting on Charles appearing in his mother’s bridal veil – the Kindle edition of my ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey is available to download for the next couple of days from Amazon US/UK for just 99 cents/pence.
The Olympics in Rio are taking up the starting position, and Yorkshire-based Team GB gymnast Nile Wilson has dusted his hands with chalk and mounted his pommel horse to warm up and show off his pecs, tris, tatts, abs and obliques.
Oh, and advertise Hyperflex jeans.
They certainly look very flexible. Though surely there’s a jean-shorts version available? Or perhap a denim thong?
Nile, 20, is not the only UK gymnast to be ‘exploited’ and ‘objectified’ by the rapacious eye of advertising in our body-centred age.
Olympic medallist Louis Smith, 27, a former Strictly contestant and almost as famous for his collection of hair straighteners as his medals, has also been showing us his eye-watering versatility in an ad for Kellogg’s – in his pajama bottoms.
Long gone are the days when cornflakes would save you from self-abuse.
Paradoxically, gymnastics is not just the purest Olympic sport but also the most spornosexual – after all, the word ‘gymnastics’ derives from the Ancient Greek for ‘exercise naked’ (‘gymnos’ = ‘naked’). The Greeks saw it as the perfect training for war – but also an aesthetic good in itself, informing much of their sculpture. It’s weightlifting where the weight is your own body. Crossfit without the cult – and the beards (mostly).
It also makes for spectacular HD TV – perfect human forms executing perfect gravity-defying movements, and flexing their core muscles in the process. Today’s gymnastics is not so much about preparing for war as stardom. Which can of course be a cut-throat business.
And to that end there’s a whole new generation of male gymnasts who seem very happy to get closer to the original nakedness of gymnastics, many of them sharing semi-naked selfies on social media that show off – sometimes in extreme, saucy close-up – their aesthetic as well as their sporting achievements.
I think we’re going to see a lot more of them this summer.
Driving is a wonderfully useful thing. It gets you from A to B without breaking a sweat, without getting cold or wet, and without having to listen to other people eat crisps ludicrously loudly, or watch them spill their large, very sugary Virgin Trains tea all over the table you’re sharing with them.
There is however a drawback. Driving involves decisions. And attention. And having to turn this thing in front of you called a ‘steering wheel’. When you would rather be picking your nose, chatting to your passenger in an animated fashion about office gossip, or finding that Adele track you haven’t listened to for at least a week. Or perhaps just having a nice open-eyed snooze.
Lots and lots of drivers really don’t like driving and proper driverless cars are still a few years off. What to do? Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem – become your own driverless car.
It’s really very easy. Though it does make life very difficult for everyone else. Just find a motorway, find the middle lane and then make yourself at home! No need to turn the wheel much again, look in your mirrors or engage your brain until you need to exit the motorway. Suddenly, without indicating.
Or at least, that used to be the solution. However, the much-publicised conviction of a van driver in Leeds Magistrate Court last week threatens to wake middle lane hogs from their cozy slumber, wrapped up between the outside and inside lanes. The court was told he was driving a Citroen Berlingo van at 60MPH and repeatedly refused to move out of the central lane of the M62 near Huddersfield.
In what will sound a frustratingly familiar scenario to many motorway users, police said drivers had to brake and swerve to overtake the blissfully unaware Berlingo and that he had numerous opportunities to move back into the left hand lane but failed to do so, choosing instead to drive in ‘an inconsiderate manner’. (Though you can be sure that like most people confronted with blatant road-hoggery they used a ruder expression at the time.)
The law was changed in 2013 giving the police more powers to issue on-the-spot fines for driving misdemeanours such as hogging the middle lane, tailgating, undertaking and failure to give way at junctions. Figures published last year revealed that 10,000 motorists have been fined under these new powers for dealing with ‘anti-social driving’. Though many drivers moan that there doesn’t appear to have been much of a decline in middle-lane hoggery, particularly in the South East where most lane-hogging seems to happen.
The bloody-minded Berlingo driver is believed to be the first to be convicted in court of the offence. It’s not clear why the case came to court rather than being dealt with by an on-the-spot fine. Perhaps he refused to pay and decided to have his day in court. If so he seems to have changed his mind about being Britain’s most famous Middle Lane Hog – Mr Berlingo failed to turn up, was convicted in his absence and ordered to pay a £500 fine, £400 in costs and a £40 victim surcharge and handed five penalty points.
£1000 and five penalty points is a bit more than Days Inn charge for a snooze on Her Majesty’s highway, so who knows? Maybe indicating and actually turning the steering wheel every now and again will become more common on motorways now.
It seems unlikely though that all middle lane hogs are going to suddenly discover the existence of the left lane, particularly as traffic congestion continues to increase. And the (self) righteous anger of other drivers at the selfishness of middle lane hoggers is unlikely to go away.
After all, whatever lane they’re in, all other cars on the road are ‘hogging’ it. Unlike yours. Deep down, all drivers think that the road they’re driving on was made just for them. The real crime of the middle lane hogger is to not even try to hide that presumption.
Mark Simpson on the lost glamour of Leicester Forest East services
Leicester Forest East, situated – or rather, squeezed – between J21 and J21a on the M1, contains a slightly interesting paradox to those sufficiently undulled by the boredom of motorway driving and an entire family pack of Haribos to notice it.
Not its appearance, which now looks like a very average 1960s motorway services that has seen better days, but because it is in actual geographical fact west of Leicester and there is no Leicester Forest. On investigation however, it turns out not to be a Harry Potter-esque Platform 9 ¾ situation. The name is down to the slightly disappointing discovery that the services are located east of somewhere called Leicester Forest West.
And that, you might think, is all there is Leicester Forest East. Along with the usual bland modern quick fix carbs/fats/caffeine outlets, including a Burger King, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Harry Ramsden and a Starbucks.
But you’d be wrong. Very wrong. LFE has a past. And what a past! When it opened fifty years ago on February 15, 1966, LFE was the most glamorous place to eat on the motorway – and very possibly the whole of Leicestershire.
It boasted a 692 seat Terence Conran-designed silver-service restaurant occupying the bridge above the carriageway, called ‘The Captain’s Table’, fitted out with luxury carpets, ocean liner décor and a deck-like balcony. There were even waiters in sailor suits and a pianist on a baby Grand. And no, I’m not making this up.
Today, motorway gourmands stopping here have to make do with a pricey panini from Waitrose.
Although it now looks like a fairly non-descript unloved 1960s giant concrete bus-stop, LFE was an architectural novelty in the UK when it was built. Based on an Italian design used on the Autostrade, and placing terraces at each end of the two-storey bridge-come-amenity building, it was rather ‘Mod’.
Frozen food retailer Ross had won the Ministry of Transport tender with their audacious design and a promise to bring fine dining to M1 motorists. They had decided that motorway services represented an exciting new business opportunity as well as a good way to publicise themselves – hence the fishy-themed restaurant, and their efforts to make the food as good as possible. By all accounts, they succeeded.
In a nice touch, the first private motorist customer, Andrew Thorp of Church Road, Leicester, and the first lorry driver, Derek Lashbrook, of Greenwich, London received a voucher entitling them to a free meal there every 15 Feb until 1991.
But the worth of those vouchers expired much quicker than anyone anticipated – the golden days and the good intentions didn’t last very long. With more and more motorway services opening in the late 60s, the ‘glamour’ and novelty of eating on the motorway rapidly declined into a chore – while competition rapidly increased. And the competition was on price, not quality. Inevitably, the Captain’s Table hit the iceberg of economic realities and began to go under. It soon found itself sharing the commanding bridge at LFE with other service amenities, while the distinctive terrace was closed for ‘health and safety’ reasons.
In the 1970s, Ross reluctantly gave up on glamour altogether and introduced a betting shop, ice cream stall and a separate Happy Eater restaurant. Eventually Ross threw in the motorway services towel and sold LFE to the current operator, Welcome Break in 1985 – who are of course a byword for culinary delight….
While it’s almost certainly a more convenient and much quicker pit-stop with more choice in its modern ‘food court’ than back in 1966, it’s apparent that the glamour of LFE – rated 3/5 burgers by this motorway services review site – has long since fled. As it has of course from all other motorway services.
But sometimes it is still occasionally glimpsed, usually in the newsagents, buying crisps and a fizzy drink. In a recent BBC report on LFE’s 50th birthday, Suzanne Chapman, who works in the newsagents, recalled the celebrities she’s served: ‘Terry Waite, Steve Davies, they’ve all been through’. Some were shyer than others: ‘David Frost came, but he didn’t come to the till, he sent his driver and stood in the background.’
Perhaps Frost, who of course became a celebrity in the same decade as Leicester Forest East, was busy reminiscing about the Captain’s Table and the waiters in sailor’s outfits.
by Mark Simpson
(Originally published in the Daily Telegraph May 12, 2016)
30-years ago today, the stars of Top Gun were taxiing the red carpet at the premiere in New York. The film, which features Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for Alpha male supremacy, was abou t to ‘go ballistic’ and smash multiple box office records. In doing so, the Tony Scott piloted blockbuster would make A-listers out of its two preening male stars, and become perhaps the definitive 80s film.
But it has also become a shared joke these days. The subject of Saturday Night Live skits and a host of YouTube parodies.
Though it really doesn’t need much parodying. Or editing. There’s a plot which sees Tom Cruise as ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for ‘top’ – with Kelly McGillis trying, vainly, to come between them.
Then there’s those lingering locker-room scenes, in which the sweaty jocks stand around wearing only towels and perfectly gelled hair, apparently waiting for the cheesy porno muzak to start.
And that ‘ambiguous’ dialogue: ‘Giving me a hard-on!’ whispers one flyboy to another, watching videos of dogfights. ‘Don’t tease me!’ replies his buddy. ‘I want butts! Give me butts!’ shouts an angry air traffic control officer. And the final reel consummation between Iceman and Maverick on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, cheered on by the entire crew, after all that playing hard to get: ‘You can be my wingman any time!’ ‘Bullshit, you can be mine!’
And of course, the immortal volleyball scene, in which oiled guys in jean-shorts and shades flex and strut and jump to the sounds of ‘Playing with the Boys’.
All this plus Tom Cruise at his prettiest and poutiest, in leathers and on a motorbike. When not in his underwear.
So it’s difficult to believe it now, but when Top Gun was released in 1986, the vast majority of the people who flocked to see it did not think it ‘gay’. At all. They would likely have dropped their popcorn at the suggestion – and the movie wouldn’t have taken $177M internationally, making it one of the most successful movies of the decade. Instead Top Gun was seen as the story of airborne, aspirational male heterosexual virility. Nice-looking, worked-out male heterosexual virility.
Even nearly a decade on in 1994 when I wrote about the outrageous homoerotics of Top Gun in my book ‘Male Impersonators’, plenty of people still weren’t prepared to have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned. Later the same year the director Quentin Tarantino made a controversial cameo appearance in the movie ‘Sleep With Me’, arguing that Top Gun was about a gay man struggling with his homosexuality.
The journalist Toby Young, a Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write an essay in the Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies. As I recall, his ‘clinching’ argument was that Top Gun couldn’t be a gay movie because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.
And in a queer way, he was right. Top Gun isn’t of course a gay movie. But it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either. Whatever the intentions of its makers, it’s basically ‘bi’ on afterburners. And this seems to be widely accepted now.
So how did attitudes towards Top Gun change so much? How did it’s virile heterosexuality so spectacularly ‘crash and burn’?
Well, partly because everyone is so much more knowing these days, or at least keen to seen to be. And we have tell-tale YouTube to collect all those ‘incriminating’ clips. It’s why we talk about ‘bromance’ now – instead of ‘innocent’ buddy movies. And partly it’s because Top Gun has come to be seen as the quintessential 80s movie – and the 80s are now seen as culturally ‘gay’. Or camp.
For instance, despite his apparently entirely heterosexual personal life, Simon Cowell is seen as screamingly ‘gay’ – culturally. And his whole personal style, the hair, the white t-shirts, the leather jackets, the Ray Bans is Top Gun. (Even his business model is Top Gun – the karaoke, and the struggle to ‘be the best’.)
All that said, the erotic ambiguity of Top Gun – which is what really powers it – is in the spectacular collision between the mostly sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war and buddy movies with the glossy ‘gayness’ and emergent male vanity and individualism of 1980s advertising. It’s somehow both innocent and explicit all at once. A proto-metro war movie.
In 1985, the year before TG was released, a new UK TV ad campaign for tired jeans brand Levis featuring Nick Kamen stripping in a launderette had caused a sensation – sending Levis sales into the stratosphere. Like Top Gun, the ad was set in a mythical 1940s, but with a 1950s soundtrack. Although we’re all familiar with it now, jaded even, back then the male body was just beginning to be sold to the mainstream – very often taking its cues from gay porn, because that was really the only reference point for the sexualized male body.
The late Tony Scott, like his older brother Ridley, had learned his craft in the UK ad business – and their father was a career soldier. Hence the glamorous, fetishizing presentation of the young men in the movie, alongside the more traditional homoerotic-homosocial banter that we now find so hilarious. Those infamous locker-room scenes were the Launderette ad all over again – only gayer.
What TG succeeded in doing was making the then new, consumerist, non-traditional male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men with different expectations to their fathers’. Hence the loan to the film-makers by the USN of the USS Enterprise. (Reportedly USN recruiting went through the roof after the film’s release.)
After all, some years earlier the USN had loaned The Village People a destroyer to record the promo of their single ‘In The Navy’. Back then, most people who bought their records didn’t think The Village People were gay either. They just thought them fun archetypes of hetero American machismo.
The crusade against ‘fapping’ is eerily reminiscent of the anti-masturbation movements of the 19th century says Mark Simpson
(Originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph 29 April, 2016)
Those annoying porn ‘pop-ups’ are impossible to avoid these days. Especially when browsing serious newspapers. PORN HORROR! headlines zoom repeatedly into our sightlines, warning us that pornography is ‘addictive’ (despite an inconvenient lack of evidence), ‘ruins relationships’ and ‘rewires men’s brains’, turning them into sex zombie automatons.
Whether or not it’s addictive for people who watch it, porn certainly seems to light up the reward centres of the commentariat brain. Panics about porn are a habit that just keeps increasing alarmingly.
The UK Government itself is currently in the sweaty grip of this hysteria. With David Cameron’s controversial (and somewhat porous) ISP porn filters only recently installed, MPs are now turning their attention to the popularity of anal sex in online pornography. A recent consultation paper published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport pondered restricting access as a way of reducing the numbers of people wanting to try the back bottom instead of the front one.
“More young people are engaging in anal intercourse than ever before,” reads the paper, solemnly. “While the increase in anal sex cannot be attributed directly to pornography consumption, it does feature in a large percentage of mainstream pornography (for example, one content analysis found it featured in 56pc of sex scenes).”
The paper’s assumptions – as with all porn panics – appear to be entirely heterosexual, so much so that it doesn’t even bother to explicitly state them, even when talking about anal sex. Instead they just cite research which suggests that anal sex “is often not seen as a pleasurable activity for young women”.
In other words, the Government’s anxiety seems to be that straight porn is encouraging straight people to engage in ‘gay sex’.
It’s easy to forget, but just a couple of generations ago any sexual contact between two men, including of course anal sex – the sex act that male homosexuality symbolises for many – was completely illegal in the UK. It wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 that it became partially decriminalised in England and Wales (Scotland followed suit in 1980; Northern Ireland in 1982).
As late as 1986, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who also famously introduced the first anti ‘gay propaganda’ law, Section 28) demanded a mention of anal sex be deleted from a government Aids education leaflet.
Many at the time saw Aids as a divine punishment for the ‘sin of Sodom’. And the deep-seated resistance to ‘sodomy’ is of course religious in origin. But it’s important to note that the religious and legal definition of ‘sodomy’ is not restricted to anal sex – it is essentially any non-procreative naughtiness, whatever the shape of the genitals involved. Hence all same-sex sexual contact is sodomy – but so is hetero oral sex, for example. For monotheism, the point of sex is to make more uptight monotheists.
And here’s the rub. ‘Straight’ porn today is basically broadband sodomy – non-procreative sex acts piped into people’s hands for them to commit non-procreative sex acts over.
Current porn panics represent a digital-age, socially-concerned update of warnings about the terrible fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.Nowhere is this clearer than in the US, where (thanks to the First Amendment) most of our porn, and also most of our panics about it, come from. America is a complicated, conflicted country founded by Puritans, constituted by libertarians and built by salesmen.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 that anti-sodomy laws violate the constitutional right to privacy, several US states still have them on their statutes. One such state is Utah, which just announced porn to be a ‘public health emergency’, five years after it was revealed to have the highest percentage of online porn subscribers in the US.
Indeed, one of the frontrunners for the Republican Presidential nomination race, Ted Cruz, tried in 2004 to defend a Texas law banning the sale and promotion of dildos and artificial vaginas on the basis that “there is no right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship”. He failed, but it just goes to show that the right to stimulate your own genitals isn’t to be taken for granted.
Nor is onanism necessarily a fundamentalist obsession. The mighty Time magazine recently devoted its front cover to a warning about the supposed horrifying emasculating epidemic as a result of of online masturbation: ‘Porn and The Threat to Virility,’ read the terrifying headline on the feature story.
America, we were warned, faced an epidemic of impotence amongst young men caused by porn and ‘fapping’, slang for masturbation, coined on Reddit’s comment boards. (The sensationalist ‘science’ of this story and many other porn panics, including ‘addiction’ and ‘misogyny’ moralising, was nicely diced and sliced by Joanne Bagshaw at Psychology Today.)
The crusade against ‘fapping’ is eerily reminiscent of the anti-masturbation movements of the 19th century, when male ‘self-abuse’ was widely-seen by respectable right-thinking people on both sides of the Atlantic – and also medical science – as a scourge that led to impotence, weakness, effeminacy, insanity, and the collapse of the nation.
That great American medical man, salesman and devout Seventh Day Adventist Dr John Harvey Kellogg, was one of the most famous foes of the ‘solitary vice’. His bland cornflakes were supposed to save you from it – like porn today, an exciting diet was thought to lead to overstimulation. Other, even more unsavoury ‘cures’ included phenol dripped onto the clitoris and circumcision without anaesthetic.
Male circumcision eventually became dominant in the US – c. 81pc today – in part because of its perceived inhibition of masturbation. Though it seems to have been about as effective as corn flakes at getting men to stop ‘fapping’.
Likewise, today’s panics about online onanism are usually based on a cherished, quasi-religious ideal of ‘natural’ and ‘normal sex’. But instead of procreation, they often assume the ‘purpose’ of sex and sexual desire to be (hetero) ‘love and intimacy’ and cast porn as the satanic lubricant of the fappers’ sins.
The US’s ‘foremost relationship expert’ Dr John Gottman praised Time’s anti-porn crusade in a doom-laden ‘Open Letter on Porn’ which labels it a “serious threat to couple intimacy and relationships” and talks a lot about ‘normal sex’. Again, as in most porn panic texts, including the Time piece and the UK Government consultation papers, the presumption is entirely heterosexual. Same sex relationships don’t exist.
There’s a very good reason for this. As gay therapist Joe Kort points out in this breezy, plain-talking riposte to Dr Gottman and the way discussions on porn as a ‘public health crisis’ and ‘addiction’ always exclude same sexuality relationships, the vast majority of gay and lesbian couples simply don’t have a problem with porn. It’s not rewiring their brains; it’s not destroying their relationships.
How can this be when porn is such a ‘serious threat to couple intimacy and relationships’ – along with the nation’s hard-ons?
Kort thinks it’s because same sex couples are less likely to believe that their loving relationship should forever satisfy the need for outside sexual stimulus for both partners – and less likely to hide their interest in porn.To that I would add that same sex couples probably have less investment in the notion of ‘normal sex’ than most hetero ones – usually having had to overcome social and religious stigma attached to their ‘abnormal’, ‘unnatural’, ‘sodomitic’ sexuality.
To put it bluntly, perhaps when you get over shame about sex there’s sweet FA to panic about.
In tribute to Victoria Wood who died today, I’m posting this interview I did with her in 1998, for Attitude magazine. An historically funny – and very smart – northern woman.
‘The Northern Woman,’ said Alan Bennett, who knows about these things, ‘is like the Galapagos Turtle—she’s an entirely different species.’ In the eighties, Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV was the HMS Beadle of comedy, bringing us bizarre flora and fauna never seen before on telly. Creatures like Bossy Northern Woman: ‘Make way! I’m a diabetic!’ Common Northern Woman: ‘Is it on trolley an’ can yer point to it?’. And Very Common Northern Woman: ‘I’ve got ‘ide and ‘eal on me lovebites—I were shit-faced on a pint of brandy and Babycham last night!’
Since then, these exotics have become naturalised to the British TV landscape and Victoria Wood has become a national institution. And like many national institutions, she hasn’t done so well in the Nineties, a decade which turned out to belong to the Southern Fash Mag Slag.
But now everyone’s bored with the Nineties and the Eighties are back and so is Ms Wood, with a square meal sit-com called ‘Dinner Ladies’ that makes you wonder why you ever bothered with insubstantial London tarts. Dinner Ladies is a perfect excuse for getting an eclectic bunch of Northern Women together to fill a lot of torpedo rolls and serve up a lot of classic Woodisms: ‘…don’t get me wrong,’ says one middle aged lady to another, ‘I’ve nothing against ‘Delilah’, it’s just Tom Jones squatting in his swimming trunks on the cover of TV Times that I have a problem with…’.
Did she consciously aim for a Beckettian standard of dialogue? ‘Well!’ laughs Wood, swallowing the last of her Welsh Rarebit, rubbing her fingers over her plate and looking away to the right, eyes raised, in that slightly shy but determined way she has. ‘I wanted them to have conversations which shot past one another and they’re never concluded. People overhear the end of conversations that are left unexplained. I wanted a mixture of high comedy and naturalism.’
Wood in person is a mixture of friendly unpretentiousness—laughing loudly and generously—with a quietly confident smartness. She’s also of course northern, but in a mild, lower middle class Lancashire-bred and BBC-educated way.
Wood’s father was an insurance underwriter in Preston. She had one brother and two sisters, but they didn’t mix. It was a lonely childhood. ‘We lived in a very strange house on a hill with no neighbours and no visitors. I just stayed in my room and watched the TV and played the piano. Sometimes my father would come in and watch a bit of TV standing up, as if he were just about to leave, but my mother wouldn’t watch any telly at all. In fact, it used to go back to the shop in the Summer to encourage us to pick bluebells in the meadow, or something.’
Wood didn’t turn to that other staple of desperate youth: pop music. ‘It seemed to me to be about dressing up and going out and meeting boys, which scared me. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I had a boyfriend or any friends at all. I felt like I’d been accepted for membership of the human race.’
In addition to her own humanity, Wood discovered a passion for performing and studied drama at Birmingham University. Even before she graduated she was performing in folk clubs and appearing on Pebble Mill, followed by ‘a really awful talent programme on ITV with Lenny Henry’. Almost single-handedly, Wood invented the British female TV stand-up.
But it seems a bit extreme—to spend your youth as a bedroom recluse and your adulthood as a stand-up comedian? ‘Yes,’ she agrees, nodding, ‘but it’s very therapeutic,’ she explains. ‘You have to bond with the audience: this is my world, do you get it? When they say, “Yeah!” It’s great, especially when you feel that you live in a world that doesn’t really get you….’
Perhaps this is the reason why so many gay fans ‘get you’ to the point of obsession? I have several gay friends who can recite whole seasons of As Seen on TV…
Wood nods. She’s heard about these cases. ‘Flattering as it is, it was never intended. That would just be patronising and dire. Mind, I did wonder about the signals I was giving out: I had short hair and a big suit. These enormous lesbians used to come round the stage door and they’d be wearing the same suit and the same hair!’
Having gay fans can mean that you’re incredibly sophisticated and witty, or… ‘… it can mean that you’re just a really sad middle-aged woman,’ laughs Wood finishing my sentence. ‘But I’m not dependent on that relationship for my own self-esteem in the way that some gay icons who are very responsive to their gay fans are. I’m not in that world. I have my own life. I don’t inhabit my own TV series.’
‘What I tend to get are very intelligent creative gay boys of 15-16 who really like my sketches. I think part of the reason why gay men respond so well is because camp is partly about echoing, in exaggerated form, the way some women speak, which is what I do in my work.’
I ask about a famously intelligent and creative fan of Wood’s whose work also echoes the way extraordinary ordinary women speak. ‘Oh yes,’ she recalls, ‘Morrissey used to write to me a lot. He invited me to his house once. I didn’t go because, well, I don’t visit people’s houses if I don’t know them. It just doesn’t seem right.’
Of course, Bossy Northern Woman would have been round there in a flash, poking around in Moz’s cupboards and measuring the pile on his shag.
Mark Simpson explains why Cristiano Ronaldo’s talent & prettiness are so intolerable
One of the queerest things about homophobia is that many of its targets are not actually homo. Not because homophobia is a blunt, inaccurate baseball bat – though that as well – but because homophobia is used as a way of policing all men’s behaviour, whatever their actual sexual preference. Or just to bring them down a satisfying peg or two. That’s so GAY!! What are you, a FAG?? Etc. Etc.
Now that overt homophobia is increasingly uncool and sometimes illegal, it perhaps tends to be directed even more at men who are not officially gay or bi – albeit in a ‘joshing’ way. Especially if they’re hotter, hencher and much more famous, wealthy and talented than you – and we’re talking about football.
During last week’s match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the 31-year-old Portuguese football ace and underwear god Cristiano Ronaldo – Real’s star player – was targeted from the stands with chants of ‘MARICON!!’, the Spanish equivalent of ‘faggot’. Apparently this has been going on for a while.
Francisco Ramirez the director of the Spanish LGBT Observatory said: ‘For months the Real Madrid player Cristiano Ronaldo has been the continued object of insults and malicious rumours from the tabloids, and also from sports journalists and… players, in order to humiliate, offend and denigrate a great football player.’
Ronaldo is, by the way, not just a great football player – he’s one of the greatest of all time. He’s also currently the highest paid footballer in the world. Which of course just makes him and his prettiness all the more intolerable. Ronaldophobia is perfectly understandable, really.
‘It is necessary to clarify,’ added Ramirez ‘that homophobia does not necessarily mean that people who suffer are homosexual, but only that other people believe it or use it to insult, harass and humiliate others.’
Quite. I have no burning interest in Ronaldo’s ‘real’ sexual orientation – someone who has reportedly been involved with a series of female supermodels. But lots of people do – straight and gay. Last year a photo of him horsing around with his bearded Moroccan kick-boxing buddy Badh Hari was seized upon by many as ‘proof’ that Ronaldo is GAY!! (it’s never lower-case ‘gay’ – and of course never, ever ‘bi’). Football pundits ‘worried’ on TV that ‘cuddling’ his buddy would ‘affect his performance’.
Football is a very odd game indeed.
Perhaps I don’t have enough imagination, or perhaps I’m just not repressed enough, but when I saw the photos I only saw two young men enjoying each other’s company and, rather wonderfully, not being afraid to show it. Not afraid, in other words, that people would think them… GAY!!
I also found myself wondering that if they were actually having a secret gay relationship they might have been rather more inhibited – and Hari might not have captioned the pic of him picking up a grinning Ronaldo ‘Just married!’.
But then, probably nobody really believed that the photos proved Ronaldo was having a gay affair – they were just a way to have a phobic little faux scandal and chastise him again for being a free, affectionate spirit with loads of money and talent and no modesty.
However you interpret it, Ronaldo feels no need to deny the rumours and the abuse or react to them at all. He really doesn’t give a shit what you or I think. Which is what drives so many of us – especially us English with our herd mentality – crazy.
When he played in the UK from 2003-2009 for Manchester United – the same club David Beckham had played for before moving to Real Madrid – Ronaldo was regularly abused from the terraces and also became the target of an especially vicious and sustained phobic campaign from the UK media. Ronaldophobia was a national sport.
Unlike savvy, needy Beckham, proud Ronaldo didn’t go out of his way to curry favour with the press and play the self-deprecating game. Worse, he was younger, better looking, more talented – and, fatally, wasn’t English.
The UK’s biggest-selling tabloid repeatedly attacked the ‘arch metrosexual’ as they dubbed him (as in, I guess, ‘arch villain’ and ‘arched eyebrows’), for sunbathing too much, for wearing ‘tight silver shorts’ on holiday, for his interest in grooming, his ‘perfectly shaved chest’ and generally being a big poof.
They even ran a piece comparing him to George Michael – who is also olive-skinned and GAY!! GEDDIT?? – suggesting he fancies ‘playing for the other team’, and basically just shouting ‘MARICON!!’ at him over and over again.
Ronaldo’s response? He went on holiday wearing even tighter shorts and a pink baseball cap. With a pink flower behind his ear. After the UK press went predictably berserk again – including publishing photos of a male friend ACTUALLY TOUCHING HIM while he was wearing that GAY!! hat and GAY!! flower – he was pressed for a response: ‘I don’t see what is wrong with that if you are comfortable with your sexuality,’ he replied, matter-of-factly.
The English of course aren’t comfortable with anything. Least of all themselves. Which is where much of their Ronaldophobia came from – and will likely surge back again with a passion if he returns to Manchester United as has been rumoured lately.
In that recent match against Barcelona where he was called MARICON! by the terrace oafs, Ronaldo remained as unchastised and shameless as ever – scoring a stunning winning goal in the last few minutes. Then in the locker room afterwards he lost no time stripping down to his white Speedos and showing off his tanned, shredded body in a team photo with the celebrating Real lads.
What a careless, thoughtless, utter bastard. Why can’t he show some respect for the feelings of ugly, untalented men everywhere?
Whatever their sexuality.
Can’t say that Kevin Spacey has quite the same effect on me as he appears to have on this Italian act called Gabriele. But I’m very glad he did.
The Hollywood actor was a guest recently on Italian talent show Amici di Maria De Filippi. And what talent they have in Italia! That very shy lad in white, who keeps licking his fingers and playing with his own endowments, is a veritable masterpiece.
(As ever when watching footage of armies of naked young men offering us their perfect pecs, packets and buttocks on prime-time it’s important to remember that male objectification doesn’t exist and in fact is impossible.)
For some reason, the Italian TV clip minded me of this ageless moment from a few years back where another group of shirtless young men entertained another famous older man in Rome:
Mark Simpson on the information overload facing today’s drivers
Before we all started zooming around cyberspace and endlessly fiddling with games, apps and cool lock screens on our smartphones, the most exciting sense of interactive information – of hardcore control – that most people who weren’t actually fighter pilots or engineers or micromanaging dictators got was from the dials on their car dashboards.
Needles and lights and counters monitoring speed, revolutions per second, oil temperature, oil pressure, water temperature, outside temperature, inside temperature, humidity, mileage, voltage, fuel, time – all facing towards the Sun King (or Queen), the big boss making it all happen, aka The Driver.
Constantly, relentlessly conveying information to you so that you can make correct, life-or death decisions as you slice through time and space. And so that you can feel incredibly important.
Driving is the original God game.
As a sprog, when my dad was in the market for a new car, I would scrutinise the brochures he brought home and tot up how many dials, lights and switches there were on the dashboard. Whichever car had the most was clearly the most car and I would then nag and needle my dad to get it. Wisely, he always ignored me – otherwise we would probably have ended up with a Ford every time.
To this day I’m still incredibly jealous that a school chum’s dad’s car had a dial that ours didn’t – I think it was for windspeed, or something. This may explain the unnatural pleasure that a dial that looked like it belonged in a Second World War Italian fighter plane and mounted right in the centre of the dashboard of my first car, a Fiat 127 Sport, gave me.
But times change. As the level of technology and safety gear has rapidly increased in cars, so has the amount of information that you are inflicted with, whether you want it or not. Paradoxically, increased automation – traction control, cruise control, lane-keeping, collision-warning etc. etc. – has meant more information about the automation. And of course, climate control, sat-nav, Bluetooth calling, and infotainment systems have also increasingly hogged our dashboards and distracted our attention further and further from the road ahead.
Drivers have changed as well. They are much less likely today to be ‘gaugist’ boy racers such as I was twenty years or so ago – and much more likely to be women. And in a world where information overload is almost universal and round the clock thanks to our constant pocket companions more and more drivers find the level of persistent information and ‘direct control’ model of car instrumentation, where each instrument and function has its own display/control, less and less flattering and instead something of an insult.
Our brains have been tamed by algorithms which tell us that we are God, but do most of the godlike work for us.
This is what excites people about the idea of the Apple Car. They are hoping that not only will it be really cool, and really compatible with their iPhone for once, but that it will have a dashboard that is ‘intuitive’ – like their mobile phone and thus the rest of their lives. The cluttered 20th Century unreconstructedness of current car dashboards are a terrible shock. It’s like walking into a pop-up micro-brewery in your man-bun and finding Oliver Reed at the bar.
This male designer recently wondered aloud why car dashboards are all ‘so wrong’. Essentially, he believes the ‘direct control’ model of car UI has reached the end of the road and that information and controls should only be offered when needed: ‘My car’s temperature is only important to me if it is trending in the wrong direction. Alert me when that happens, otherwise I don’t need to know.’
A lofty, senior executive (‘don’t bother me with trivia’) outlook is one that probably many people today, used to delegating responsibility to algorithms, would agree with. Though when he also says he doesn’t need to know things like his speed ‘all the time’ you have to remember that he lives in California, where ‘driving’ is a very relative, very conditional concept. Or as he puts it: ‘My morning commute is all about Zen, so my dashboard should be blank.’
But the future is already here. Or at least a slightly retro version of it that appeals to me. The new Audi TT’s digital instrument panel combines the functions of a central multimedia interface monitor and conventional instrument cluster in a huge 12.3 inch TFT display where you need it, right in front of you behind the steering wheel. So basic driver information, such as speed and revs, as well as directions, maps and music and calling info are finally in one sensible easily, quickly glanced-at place rather than scattered all over.
Although it does away with analogue gauges, it reassuringly renders the speedo and rev counter dials in virtual form either side of the display, combining the best of both worlds – digital-analogue. Audi have dubbed it a ‘virtual cockpit’ – the TT is a ‘sporty’ car that attracts ‘sporty’ drivers – and it appears to merge the experience of driving with playing a computer game. Which totally gets my sadult vote.
The UI control menus are described by Audi as ‘intuitive’, but probably won’t satisfy our Californian designer or most iPhone enthusiasts, since much of the on-screen info is persistent (you will know what speed and revs you’re doing at all times). Worse, there’s no touch screen.
There are however two modes: ‘classic view’, in which the speedo and rev counter are big grapefruit dominant; and ‘infotainment’ in which the map and ‘tainment stuff dominates and the gauges shrivel to the size of plums.
I think I’ll go with ‘classic view’.
When it comes to minor bumps when parking are you a bit of a Penny? When no one’s looking?
In the long-running TV sit-com Big Bang Theory, Penny the failed actress and Leonard’s on-off girlfriend, asks “What’s so great about being grown-up? Have insurance, pay mortgages, leave one of those little notes when you hit a parked car…”
Penny’s friends don’t share her laissez faire approach – especially when she lets slip that she broke one of their wing mirrors.
According to a recent survey, one in five UK drivers are Pennys – admitting that they have damaged another car and scarpered without making the owner aware of the incident, despite this being not only not terribly grown up but also rather illegal.
Though, actually, men were much more likely to admit Penny-like behaviour than women – 28% compared to just 16% of women. Perhaps women drivers are much more responsible than men. Or perhaps they are less likely to admit it when they’re not.
Clearly no one is perfect, however. Out of the 1,057 people surveyed, 100% of respondents had damaged another car by accident. And of those that ‘dented and ran’ over a third admitted they didn’t feel any guilt, despite over a quarter admitting that they had made a noticeable amount of damage to the other vehicle.
Young people aged 18-24 were the least likely to own up to a bump, with just over a third denting and running. They were also the least likely of all groups to feel bad about it. Perhaps Penny was right: being grown up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Though of course young people may also be less inclined to own up to a bump because they are already paying punitive car insurance premiums. And even reporting a no-fault dent to your insurer – something insurers often instruct you to do – can result in a hefty hike despite not claiming, as one young driver found out recently, when her premium jumped by a third for reporting a dent-and-run wheel arch scraping.
Minor dents and scrapes are reportedly an increasing problem. It’s estimated that there are now more than 500,000 car parking collisions annually, 1,400 a day, costing £716M a year – a rise of 4% since 2010. Car parking bumps are now second only to rear-end shunts as the most common kind of car accident. Hardly surprising the way some people drive in car parks.
This may not be because we’re getting clumsier but because cars have got bigger, and parking spaces have either stayed the same, or are more likely to only meet the minimum standard. Over 20 years the width of cars has increased by a hefty 16 percent, meaning the average British car is now around two inches wider than the Department for Transport’s 5ft 11in minimum width for on-street parking bay spaces.
You might be forgiven for thinking the popularity of electronic parking sensors and cameras would have helped us avoid bumps and scrapes, but their effect seems to have been cancelled-out by modern car designs which often have much more limited views than in the past.
It’s all very well paying extra for a cool reversing camera, but it might be better to be actually able to see out the rear window of, say, your Range Rover Evoque – for free. Or out of the front of your VW Passat CC.
And whilst I’m moaning about the modern world, I should mention that another problem is that car bumpers are no longer bumpers. At least not in the way they were in the 80s when I began driving. Instead of solid bolted on rubber lumps they are now effectively painted and shaped parts of the bodywork. Which is great news for bodywork shops. Very bad news for everyone else.
As you may have worked out, I had Penny tendencies when I was younger and lived in London. I wasn’t always entirely scrupulous about leaving a note if my bumper touched the bumper of the car in front while parking.
I didn’t in truth feel tremendously guilty about it – no one ever left me a note for the minor bumps and scrapes on mine. And besides, I’d spent time in Paris. Where parking was so tight, Parisians drivers would habitually make room for their own car by merrily ramming the car in front and the car behind. BANG! BANG! And never leaving a note, nor even a bunch of flowers.
To an Anglo, everyone in Paris is tres Penny.