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.
The driver’s pilot fantasy perfectly – and bloody dangerously – encapsulated.
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.
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 alwaysentirely 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.
While looking for an in-car mobile phone holder recently – an endless task since none of them ever seem to really work – I came across something which for the first time in years threatened to actually make that little, forgotten horizontal slot in the middle of your dashboard useful.
It was a holder that, instead of sticking, intermittently, to your windscreen or attaching to your air vent, thereby rendering something useful fairly useless, cunningly inserts itself into your CD player. Assuming of course that cobwebs, dust, uneaten crisps and total disinterest haven’t already sealed it up.
I mean, who can be bothered to find a CD and load it into their CD player these digital days? Who has the time, or the energy? Worse, when you’ve finished listening to The Best of Steps and have no more need for it you have to reach over and press eject and put the bloody CD away. Or throw it into the passenger foot well.
Even car makers, who tend to be rather conservative and slow to adapt, have begun to notice how few drivers are using those slots. Only a third of cars worldwide are predicted to have a CD player in 2019. Many car models launched in the last few months have either offered the CD player as an optional extra – or, in the case of the Citroen C4, the Skoda Yeti, the Vauhall Astra and several Hyundai models, have abandoned it altogether. CD player sales in cars are expected to fall by 80% in the US by 2021 – finally catching up with the plummeting sales of CDs themselves.
Likewise, more and more aftermarket stereo head units have begun to appear without that slot. The car CD player is on its final track – though it may of course start skipping before it reaches the end (one of the effects of storing unboxed CDs in your passenger footwell).
It wasn’t always this way. In-car CD players used to be the very height of sophistication and desirability. When the first factory-fitted CD player was debuted in a Mercedes Benz in 1985 it seemed like the acme of modernity and luxury. Never mind that early car CD players tended to jump more than a box of frogs on a hotplate as a result of road vibration. Or that ambient car rumble and roar meant that you couldn’t really appreciate the hi-fidelity of CD. (Ironically, it’s only now that cars are nearly quiet enough to appreciate CD quality that we’ve all junked them for tinny compressed file formats.)
Until the arrival of the in-car CD player the compact cassette deck ruled supreme. In fact, up until 2010 they were still part of the standard fit of one car (the Lexus SC430). Introduced in 1964 by Phillips, who also brought us the CD player, the compact cassette found its way into cars in the early 1970s, inaugurating an era of C90 mix tape drive tunes.
A forty-year innings isn’t bad going, and is rather better than CD players will probably manage. Perhaps it was those two little wheels in the middle, but compact cassettes and cars seemed to have been made for one another. Despite the horrors of de-snagging an unspooled cassette from the innards of your tape deck at 70mph.
Besides, cassettes were utter perfection compared to the plaggy crappyness of the eight-track tape players that had preceded them, and which continued to be pushed by US car manufacturers such as Ford in the 1970s. Introduced in the mid 1960s, eight-tracks were a bit cheaper than compact cassette players, but much, much worse. If Fisher Price had made a tape player it would have looked like an eight-track, but would probably have sounded better.
There was however a worse ‘music on demand’ car entertainment system than eight-track. This was Motorola’s ‘Highway Hi-Fi’ in-dash turntable that played 7-inch 45-rpm singles. Introduced in 1956 they jumped around and ruined records until being withdrawn in 1958. If eight-track was Fisher Price, this was Looney Tunes.
But then, Motorola (the name derived from ‘motor’ and ‘victrola’) had introduced the first commercially successful in-car radio in 1930 – and of course radios are the most successful form of in-car entertainment of all time. Costing an eye-popping quarter of the price of a new car, Motorola’s first effort, the 5T71, was still much cheaper and practical than one introduced by Chevrolet in 1922 – with an antenna that covered the car’s entire roof. What’s more, because ignition noise suppression wasn’t invented until 1927 you could only listen to Chevrolet’s monstrosity with the engine off.
Motorola’s radios quickly became the standard, and mass production, and the arrival of transistors in the 1950s helped dramatically reduce the size and cost. By 1963 over 60% of cars were fitted with radios – and in the US over a third of radio listening happened in the car. This was the highpoint of the AM era. (FM was introduced in 1952 by Blaukpunt, but didn’t become common until the 1970s.)
Some of us might feel slightly nostalgic for that simple unalloyed crackle, wow, and flutter with all our present day frantic bluetoothing.
For their part Motorola diversified into semi-conductors and in the 1990s and early Noughties went on to great success with the very thing that is now wreaking such havoc on car stereos: mobile phones. But it’s a fickle market – Motorola lost billions in the late Noughties and the brand was bought by Chinese electronics giant Lenovo. Who recently decided to drop the Motorola brand from their products.
So it came to pass that the great and mighty hi-tech ICE giant Motorola have ended up on the scrap heap of history even before car CD players.
Not to worry. A vast new fortune and empire is awaiting anyone who can come up with a mobile phone holder that actually works.
Mark Simpson on how young men fell out of love with the motor car
In the James Bond film ‘Spectre’ Bond has a new car. An Aston Martin DB10. It looks very nice and very sleek. But it’s nothing like the DB5 that first appeared in Goldfinger, back in 1964 and which I had a Corgi scale model of, complete with spring loaded ejector seat and plastic machine guns that emerged from the headlights. A highly-prized toy which I played with for much of the early 1970s, imagining myself all grown up and in the driving seat.
I’m sure it’s a much better car in every way than the DB5, and has even better gadgets fitted as standard, but the reason the DB10 is nothing like the original Bond car is because boys are nothing like they were back then. Cars are not the coveted, magical things able to transport you to manhood they once were and probably no boy is going to play with a DB10 Corgi scale model making brum-brum noises.
Not even James May.
In 1983, the year I took my driving test, 82% of 16-24 year olds were learning or had learned to drive. It was a rite of passage, particularly for young men – a driver’s licence was a badge of adulthood, declaring that you were a ‘man of the world’ even if you were still a virgin and weren’t legally able to vote or order a pint in a pub.
Three decades on that figure has fallen to 64%, driving tests are down by 200,000 in the last four years, and seems likely to continue to fall, especially for young men, according to a new report from the Independent Transport Commission and Office of Rail and Road. 15% of non-car owners aged 17-29 say they don’t want a car in the future compared to twice as many (32%) of non-car owners aged 30-42 saying they do. It also found that car usage amongst under 30s, regardless of car ownership, is continuing to fall.
The report found several reasons for the decline: the rising cost of car insurance – which can be twice as much for young men as for women – and the rising cost of car ownership was cited by a third of young people. “How can young people possibly afford to run a car?” said one 28-year-old male from London. “If you manage to get an older car it’s no advantage because you pay more road tax and burn more petrol.”
An increasing number of young people are going to university and accumulating debts while real wages and employment rates for young people have fallen in the last ten years, making cars less affordable. Meanwhile concessionary travel, advance rail fares, car-sharing, and car clubs are cheaper than running a car. The quality of public transport in urban areas is also improving – and more young people are living in urban areas.
The report mentions other reasons why young men in particular are driving less, such as they form partnerships and become fathers at later ages compared to women, they are more likely to cycle – and are less concerned with personal safety than women. It also speculates that the theory test may have made driving licenses more difficult to obtain for working class males.
But perhaps the most interesting finding was that car ownership, especially of high end cars, no longer leads to higher status in the eyes of other young people. Even if they have an ejector seat. Cars are becoming less attractive than alternative gadget-rich consumer products, such as smartphones – which also happen to make using alternatives to car ownership, such as Uber and BlaBlaCar, easier.
Alternatives which, unlike driving a car, allows you to continue uploading your devastating selfies to Facebook.
Not only are smartphones more personal than cars – you always have your smartphone with you and your friends will always see it – but also, in an age when young men are much more visually-conscious than in the past, the kind of car you are likely to able to afford, unless you’re a professional footballer, is probably not the kind you want to be seen in. And even if you can afford a flash car you probably won’t be seen in it very much.
Worst of all, it’s not you that gets the looks – it’s the car.
As one 19-year-old builder in Manchester put it: “I like strutting around the town – let’s face it – in a car it’s the car people look at not you – when you’re walking people notice what you’re wearing and how you look. Although I say it myself I put on quite a good show – I take great interest in fashion.”
Today’s young men have fallen out of love with the motor car and in love with themselves. Probably the only DB they’ve heard of is David Beckham.
Mark Simpson on the strange twilight world of British speed limits
When, as a kid in the 1970s, I first noticed the strange inner gauge with the inflated numbers on the speedometer of my dad’s new car I asked him, as I always annoyingly did with anything in the car, what it was for. My dad, who was a civil engineer, explained that it measured speed in kilometres per hour, and that kilometres were used instead of miles on the Continent.
At first I thought this meant that on the Continent the car would drive almost twice as fast. When it was patiently explained to me that a kilometre was in fact equivalent to 0.621 miles, I then felt sorry for Continental drivers as their distances were so small and complicated and their speeds so tricky. Fancy having to drive at no more than 112.654 kmh instead of 70 mph!
The dual speedometer was appearing in UK cars at that time not to encourage UK drivers to visit Europe – that kind of thing was still strictly for bohemians – but because back in the 1970s the UK was still supposed to be, officially anyway, heading towards the shiny new platinum future of full metrication, and from 1977 all UK registered cars had to have a speedometer capable of displaying both imperial and metric.
This came about because in the 1960s, engineers like my dad, fed up with our feudal weights and measures system along with manufacturers concerned that their main market was no longer the jolly old Commonwealth but Europe had pressed for change. In 1965 the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, full of enthusiasm for the ‘white heat of technology’, had announced its intention to abandon British Imperial measures – implemented and standardised in 1824 – and adopt the metric system, with road conversion taking place in 1973.
This, as you may have noticed, didn’t happen. The Conservatives under Ted Heath won the 1970 election and this new-fangled socialist road metrication nonsense was quietly parked and eventually allowed to be forgotten, despite taking us into the EEC in 1973. No administration since of whatever stripe has had any enthusiasm for it. Those dual speedometers in our cars are a constant reminder of a more rational future that failed to arrive.
But we didn’t really stay in the past either. In the 1980s fuel sales were switched to litres instead of gallons. Though of course odometers remained in miles, and most quoted consumption figures remain in miles per gallon. To add to the fun, regulations on emissions, which have become increasingly important of course, are metric (g/km).
Hence UK motorists in the second decade of the 21st Century move through a twilight world that is neither here nor there, neither quaintly imperial nor usefully metric – just a daft, unintelligible blur of both, with no destination in sight.
Horribly symbolising this, from last year road signs showing height and width limits were required by law to also cram in metres and centimetres as well as feet and inches (this had previously been optional). Good luck reading those at speed – and getting them the right way round.
Yards, meters & feet.
Alas, this was not to soften us up for full metrication as some pints and pounds fetishists feared – there are still no plans for it – but rather an attempt to reduce the embarrassingly large number of foreign metric lorries getting stuck under imperial bridges.
So we now have an incoherent bi-lingual weights and measures mess where road design and construction as well as car design and manufacture is now metric, but distances and speed and weight restrictions are imperial, with width and height restrictions in imperial and metric. Tachographs and speed limiters are metric, and so are motorway emergency markers, and car manuals. But distances and speed limits for road vehicles are only in imperial.
Surprisingly, possibly shockingly, there are however kmh signs on our roads right now. The light railways built in the last thirty years, such as the Tyne & Wear Metro, the Docklands Light Railway and the Manchester Metrolink operate entirely to metric standards – and speed limit signs for trams running on public roads have a nice black-and-white diamond around them to avoid confusion. And panic amongst the little Englanders.
Britain is now the only country in Europe or the Commonwealth that still defines road speed limits in mph. Metrication advocates argue that not only is the UK out of step with pretty much everyone except the US, but that metric speed limits offer a more versatile range of speed limits – because, as I learned as a kid, a kilometre is less than a mile.
Our colonial cousins Australia and Canada took the plunge and successfully switched back in the 1970s, when we said we were going to but then got cold feet. And in 2005 the Republic of Ireland completed its transition, leaving us looking like the butt of a casually racist joke.
And of course we’re completely out of step with the US anyway. The US is a vast country and the most powerful and wealthiest one in the world, so it can do pretty much as it pleases. The UK isn’t and can’t. Besides which, American measurements aren’t actually imperial – the War of Independence predates the 1824 British standardisation that created imperial units. So their gallons, for instance, are 17% smaller than ours. (But don’t try telling them that.)
And the good old British mile is of course actually Roman – the mille passus – and imported back into Britain by that bloody Frenchie William of Normandy. Not to mention that British scientists and engineers such as Newton, Watt, Joule, Faraday and Kelvin contributed to the metric system.
It’s well past time we gave up our imperial pretensions and renamed our weights and measures ‘British Parochial’. Or just pulled our finger out and finally metricated our bloody road system.
Mark Simpson on the epidemic of ‘techno-hypnosis’ stalking our streets
Remember the Japanese Tamgotchi craze of the Noughties? Remember how we all laughed at the foolishness and childishness of the little hand-held digital pet that demanded constant attention and ‘feeding’, otherwise it would ‘die’?
Well, we’ve all got one now – but we call it a ‘smartphone’. And it’s much more demanding than the old Tamagotchis – so much so that they’ve convinced us that we are the ones that will die if we don’t devote ourselves to them. Smartphones are, like, totally fascinating. Soooo cool. Amazing. Literally. Seriously. Really. THIS!
In truth, smartphones are jealous, vicious little digital pets – such fiendishly well-designed distractions that there’s very little that can compete with them. Your partner, your job, your kids and even a fast-moving, very heavy lump of metal, glass and rubber, tend to get neglected. Tamagotcha!
You might feel you’d die without your smartphone, but actually your smartphone might kill you. Earlier this year a 32 year-old woman from North Carolina lost her life in a head-on collision with a recycling truck, apparently while using her phone to post on Facebook how happy Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ song made her.
Reportedly she had also managed to upload selfies of herself while driving.
This kind e-distraction may be behind a sudden rise in road accident casualties. In the UK the number of deaths on the road increased last year by 4% to 1,775. The number of serious injuries increased by 5%, to 22,807, and a total of 194,477 people were killed or injured – the first increase in overall casualties since 1997.
And it’s not just distracted drivers, it’s also distracted pedestrians that appear to be behind the rise. The number of accidents caused by both drivers and pedestrians ‘failing to look’ has risen by 12% over the last decade, according to figures from the department of transport. Across all reported road accidents, failing to look properly by all road users was the most frequently reported single contributory factor to a crash, being named in 44% of accidents, compared to 32% ten years ago.
In accidents where a pedestrian was killed or injured, pedestrians failed to look properly in 59% of cases. Which begs the question, how many people have been run over while staring at their phones by a driver also staring at their phone?
Road safety campaigners have blamed both drivers and pedestrians for being glued to their gadgets. Edmund King, President of the AA in addition to cautioning on how some car drivers may be becoming complacent in their increasingly comfortable, gadget-filled cars, also identified the rise of the ‘iPod zombie’ as a serious problem.
‘Pedestrians who have earplugs in or iPhones out,’ he told The Times recently, ‘they are listening to music or texting and they are not concentrating on traffic on the road. Walk down the road and 50% of people are on their phones. One wonders what we did before the mobile phone. Maybe we looked around a bit more.’
Indeed. Today’s road user might be forgiven for thinking that pedestrians can’t cross the street now without updating their Twitter status as they go, gawping and jabbing at their screen as they shuffle absent-mindedly over a four lane highway, trying desperately to think of something witty to share with their online friends.
Perhaps a solution would be to make cars look like really cool apps? Then they might actually be noticed by today’s i-Zombie pedestrians. I mean, who would want to admit they were run over by Instagram or Tripadvisor?
The AA has, more sensibly, called for road safety to be taught on the national curriculum. The Institute of Advanced Motorists urged the government to reintroduce road safety targets which were dropped by the coalition government in 2010. The transport minister Andrew Jones has reminded us that thanks to new laws there are increased penalties for using a mobile phone at the wheel: three penalty points and a £100 fine.
But I have a hunch that the only real solution to our current state of techno-hypnosis is going to be even more technology.
Such as the new roadside apparatus that detects when mobile phones are being used in cars. Currently being tested in Sussex, it uses a Vehicle Activated Sign (VAS) and a mobile detector which can’t be set off by pedestrians on their phones. The sign flashes a warning if a vehicle drives by with someone inside using a mobile phone.
Presumably something along the lines of ‘GET A LIFE!!!’
I fear however, that whatever the warning is it still won’t be noticed until they find a way to mirror the message on the screen of the phone user.
At the moment, it can’t differentiate between a driver and a passenger, and officially the purpose of it is meant to be educational, though this may change in the future as the technology becomes more accurate.
Personally, I think these i-Zombie detectors should be made less accurate – they should also flash at pedestrians staring at their phones.
Of course, the final solution to the Tamagotchi epidemic is total surrender – in the form of fully-autonomous cars, which will allow drivers to devote themselves fully, legally and safely to fiddling with their phones when on the road. At the moment however we’re stuck in a transitional period, where the technology has made driving deceptively easier, our cars more boring, and our phones impossible to ignore – but we’re still supposed to be fully present and in charge.
Frankly speaking, too often we’re not – or don’t deserve to be.
Once widely-introduced, driverless cars are estimated to be likely to reduce deaths on the road by up to 90%. Of the three Google driverless cars involved in accidents during testing in the last six months, human error was found to be at fault in 100% of them. Usually they were rear-ended by distracted humans.
Probably updating their Facebook page with a photo of a Google car.
Mark Simpson on the splendidly shameless pumped progeny of David Beckham & Take That
Good things come in pairs. Buttocks, breasts, balls, pecs, Twix – and the Harrison twins.
Owen and Lewis Harrison, originally from England’s beautiful Lake District, an hour’ or so’s drive north of Manchester, are quite the attraction themselves – international fitness models, personal trainers, Instagram stars and ‘ambassadors’ for the giant online supplements company MyProtein. So they’re probably not eating many Twix.
They’re also stunning spornosexuals. So stunning, you see double.
Through hard, sweaty labour at the gym, carefully-planned diets, plenty of supplements – and liberal application of designer ink, styling fudge and fake tan – these 25 year-olds have fashioned themselves into highly desirable, highly saleable commodities. Male glamour models.
Fitness models and aesthetic or ‘physique’ bodybuilders (e.g. Steve Cook, whom I blogged about recently here) are the online high priests of spornosexuality – that is, second generation, ‘hardcore’, sexed-up, body-centred metrosexuality.
Bodybuilding for most younger guys is no longer about being as big and Austrian – and straight – as possible, as it was in the Arnie 80s & 90s. Instead it’s about being as hot as possible – and maintaining a cover-model body all year round, instead of having ‘on’ and ‘off’ seasons centred around contests.
The Harrisons, like many other fitness models, star in a host of YouTube ‘motivational’ workout videos – usually topless and in tight compression pants, lit by romantic lighting. Motivating thousands of young men to get a hench, hot bod like theirs. On their website, again, like other fitness gurus/idols,they offer personalised diet plans to help make the v-shaped dream come true, as well as, for the lucky few, ‘one 2 one‘ meetings. (Disappointingly, you only have the option to choose to train with Owen or Lewis – not both.)
If Bel Ami did workout videos.
Former Royal Marines, the Harrisons, like their ex-Marine buddy David McIntosh (below), seem completely at ease with sexualising themselves and behaving in a fashion that a previous generation would have thought ‘well gay’.
‘Look at the pins on that!’
As Owen explains in the ‘How it All Began’ vid (below – featuring a motivational workout ‘threesome’ with fitness model Simeon Panda): “I LOVE coming in the gym, working out an’ – sounds a bit poncey – looking in the mirror and thinking ‘I built that!‘”
In a profile in the Daily Mail, Lewis said: ‘It’s good fun getting in front of the camera and showing off our physiques which we have worked so hard for.’
Personally, I think they both have a lot to be proud of, and I don’t blame them for liking what they see in the mirror.
‘Objectifying’ themselves, far from rendering them powerless and despised as the word would suggest, has given them a fame and lifestyle that wasn’t supposed to be an aspiration for working class lads in rural NW England being told to get real and get a trade – and work on someone else’s property instead of their own bodies.
They originally dreamed of becoming professional footballers: ‘Growing up in the era of David Beckham… that was the dream’, explains Owen. Despite being talented scouted by Bolton Wanderers it didn’t work out for them. Rather than knuckle down get a trade, they opted for the glamour and excitement of the Royal Marines instead. It’s rather touching when Owen gets all teary-eyed reminiscing about his time in the Marines as being ‘a brotherhood’ – when of course having a twin brother is more ‘brotherhood’ than most people ever have.
After they left the Royal Marines and suffered a series of ‘depressing’ manual jobs the Harrisons finally achieved their Beckham dreams by hitting the gym harder – even after a long day labouring – and putting into action a plan to become fitness models like the ones they admired on the cover of the glossy mags they loved to read. Eventually they were discovered by a physique photographer, became online celebs – and then professional spornosexuals. A more modern, more digital type of hero than a Marine, or even a footballer or pop star.
In a sense the Harrisons are Beckham’s offspring – with some mesomorphic Take That DNA thrown in. And more interesting and significant for that reason than Beckham is perhaps now, frowning in his H&M dad pants. (But it seems especially fitting that the gym the Harrisons work out at with Panda at the ‘climax’ of the clip is called ‘Metro-Flex’.)
Their identical, stereoscopic physiques – albeit with slightly different body art – are part of their marketing shtick: cleverly, but also rather sweetly, they began their transformation into fitness models by making sure that they ate exactly the same meals and trained exactly the same way with exactly the same weights, so that they would have exactly the same weight, chest and arm size. (Their shared genes had already given them the same height of 5′ 10″.)
‘We lived together, trained together and ate all the same things at the same time. It was full on’, Lewis has said. Even their ‘cheat’ days were spent scoffing the same Dominos pizza and chocolate bars.
In a sense, they had the kind of dream ‘gym buddy’ shared lifestyle that many guys today, gay, straight or bi fantasise about. Nothing lasts forever though – the twins no longer live together as Lewis has moved in with his girlfriend.
There is also something about twindom that resonates with modern selfie-regarding masculinity (e.g. Tom Hardy in ‘Legend’ and those preternaturally prescient D&G twin ads from a few years back), which compliments the gym-mirrors and camera-lenses of spornosexuality. The Hodge twins (below) in the US are another impressive manifestation of this twinsome tendency.
The Harrisons however take it to another level. Look at the way they pout and preen in front of the mirrors – much like the lads in my gym who have no qualms about taking their tops off and flexing and snapping selfies while I pretend not to gawp. Look at the way they run their hands over themselves, feeling their own pump, gazing into the camera lens, sharing that special moment with us. Bless ’em.
And as twins they are of course mirrors to one another anyway.
No wonder other fitness models are sometimes photographed as if they had a twin.
And some people even use the twin illusion to sell books.
I know that you’re gagging to for the lads to give you their hot tips, so will leave you with some more motivational videos starring our twinsome devils – including a ‘group’ sesh (bottom) with the American physique model Jeff Seid and his big hair and even bigger tongue.
I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling totally motivated. So much so I may have to adjust my compression pants….
The spornosexual is a man who has hammered and fashioned his own body into a hot, ripped, pumped, inked, vaguely lewd commodity at the factory of the 21st century—the gymnasium. He’s a man who aspires to be that ultimate male hero today —a Men’s Health cover model.
How do you spot one? You don’t. Their under-dressed body spots you—and then demands that you look at it, to admire its glutes and guns and dizzyingly low body-fat percentage. The spornosexual is that irksome, wannabe male glamour model who hogs your Instagram and Facebook feed. But strangely, you still haven’t got around to unfollowing.
How does “spornosexual” differ from “metrosexual”?
Spornosexuality is second-generation metrosexuality. A sexed-up, body-centred, “hardcore” form of metrosexuality. The spornosexual doesn’t want to be loved just for his wardrobe, clear skin and groomed beard. He wants to be wanted for his own body—something that he’s worked very hard to turn into the ultimate accessory.
Why did metrosexualism die out to be replaced by this newer concept?
It didn’t. It swallowed everything. Men no longer “act,” while women “appear.” Men do a great deal of appearing these days. Male vanity and product use is no big deal any more—in a visual, social media world, men have to be image-conscious or else they simply… disappear.
However, because the male desire to be desired—which is the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality—is so normal these days, it’s just taken for granted, especially by the younger generation. There’s little point in “outing” someone as “metrosexual” when pretty much everyone is. Likewise, and slightly paradoxically, being metrosexual isn’t in itself something that makes you stand out nowadays. Being spornosexual, though, does. After all, what’s more eye-catching than living, walking, talking porn?
How has 21st-century culture led to the rise of the “spornosexual”?
Metrosexuality was shaped largely by glossy magazines and advertising in the ‘90s. Then in the Noughties, celebrity culture, reality TV and Beckham and co. sent it into orbit. Spornosexuality on the other hand is shaped largely by selfie-obsessed social media—where young men are busy comparing body parts. Thanks to smartphones you can be the director and star of your own reality TV show.
Ronaldo is good with colours
What is the connection to sport? Is it just about fitness, or is there an element of narcissism, about fitness to look good rather than feel good?
Well, going to the gym is a kind of sport. And arguably, pornography is a kind of sport too—and not just a spectator sport any more. Spornosexuality is the interface between fitness and sensuality, feeling good and looking good, activity and passivity, heroism and sluttiness.
Sportsmen have played a big role in promoting spornosexuality themselves—with many of them appearing in their pants on the covers of magazines—including gay magazines—and on the sides of buses in their underwear. Many of them also use topless avatars on social media, the hussies.
They don’t regard their bodies as merely a “tool” for their trade of sports — they absolutely maximise its aesthetic/sexual potential too. Eager self-objectification is a major part of spornosexuality.
Why did you pick Cristiano Ronaldo as an example? How would someone like Ronaldo differ from the man you popularized as the ultimate metrosexual, David Beckham?
Although Beckham was never shy about taking his clothes off, and was of course an athlete, his body was never that buff. He doesn’t look like he spends a lot of time in the gym. Ronaldo on the other hand is totally shredded and hench and completely fits that advertising format. You wonder whether he scores goals just so that he can take his shirt off and flex for the roaring crowd. Like much of the younger generation of males, Cristiano seems very aware of his body as a sexualized object and very keen to enhance that effect.
In a nutshell: Becks, now 40, is metrosexual. Ronaldo, 31, is spornosexual.
Coming at Cristiano Ronaldo from all angles
Is there something about football especially that fits your term? Requiring a body to be athletic and muscular but not overtly so, defined yet lithe… would the footballer be the ideal of the movement?
Footballers in the U.K. didn’t use to go to the gym. In the 1970s and ‘80s some would spend most of their time in the pub. Many of them didn’t have upper bodies at all. The transformation today is quite astonishing.
That said, gymnasts probably more embody the ideal, with their defined muscles developed from moving their perfect bodies around in the air where we can get a really good look at them. After all, the word “gymnastics” derives from the Greek for “exercise naked.”
Football, of course, traditionally has a much bigger global following than gymnastics, which is not exactly the greatest of team sports. Hence Ronaldo, who has the body of a gymnast and is also one of the world’s best footballers, is such an arresting combination – and why he is no doubt persuading a generation of young men that they need to do more crunches.
Is the spornosexual out to gain the attention of the opposite sex, or is his sexuality more fluid?
The spornosexual usually prefers women in bed, but doesn’t mind who is enjoying their body in public. His body is an adult bouncy castle for the eyes. Everyone is invited. He might sometimes look a bit of a bruiser, but he’s still a cruiser. He’s always checking out who is checking him out.
In fact, the admiration of other men is often especially prized because other men are more likely to understand how much time and sweat has gone into getting those biceps. Or care. No matter how hetero, a spornosexual isn’t usually too squeamish about homosexuality. After all, his body advertises a deep understanding and study of the the sexiness of the male body. In fact, he often looks like a gay for pay porn star. Or is actually one.
The finest little bar on the Seven Seas is closing. After forty years of entertaining the sailors of the Royal Navy, Charles’ Hole in t’Wall in Gibraltar is shuttering its doors, bringing an end to a very special chapter in British maritime and marytime history.
This report from GBC gives some idea how much of an institution the bar and most particularly owner and star-attraction Charles have been for matelots on their ‘run ashore’ in Gib – and how much they love their ‘lovely Charlie’.
Here’s how I met Charles, back in the late Nineties. It was initially a disappointment to find the Fleet out and his bar deserted, but it turned out to be a great stroke of luck for me – because it meant that I had the privilege of having lovely Charles all to myself.
Mark Simpson has a sniff around a classic men’s deodorant ad that reveals how far we’ve come – and also how some things never change
Back in the 1960s the mass-market ‘grooming’ of men by advertisers wanting to sell them vanity products was only just beginning its warm-up.
This rare and pristine copy of a 1968 UK cinema ad for men’s deodorant with the reassuringly martial name ‘Target’ (a brand that seems to have gone missing in the intervening half century) recently posted on the BFI website is a little gem of a gender time-capsule.
Starring working class hero and footballing legend Geoff Hurst, the ad points up how much has changed – post Beckham and Ronaldo. But also how some things haven’t very much. It contains some of the now tiresome tropes that can still be found in (bad) advertising aimed at men today, however the passage of time has rendered them so absurd here as to be rather endearing.
A couple of years earlier Hurst had scored a hat-trick for England in the 1966 World Cup Final – defeating West Germany. It was VE Day all over again, but without the rationing. Hurst became a national (war)hero overnight, passionately admired by millions of men.
Hence Hurst was the perfect patriotic package for pitching a hitherto sissy product like deodorant as heroic and masculine. (1960s heavyweight boxing champion and Cockney folk hero Henry Cooper would later be deployed in a similar fashion for Brut aftershave in the blokey bruiser’s famous “splash it on all ovah!” 1970s TV ads.)
Note how the “GOOD and STRONG” – the opposite of sissy – deodorant bottle is the same no-nonsense colours as the bandages in the locker-room first aid cabinet its kept in. Today, players’ changing rooms have had to be rebuilt to make their lockers big enough to accommodate their cosmetic-filled manbags.
Target is not sold as a cosmetic, heaven forfend, but as ‘protection’ – it’s the off-pitch version of the martial shin-pads Geoff wears before he heads onto the pitch and pretending, endearingly badly, to be hard-tackled on what seems to be a pitch made mostly of honest, manly mud.
In fact, the ‘protection’ angle is emphasised so much you wonder whether Target made prophylactics as well.
Note also the modesty-saving towel velcroed to Hurst’s chest – today the camera would be zooming in on his oiled, shaved, pumped pecs, and following him into the shower. And note the visit to the local boring boozer instead of a poncey bar selling them there dodgy foreign lagers.
And it would be impossible to miss the hysterical insistence by the fruity voiceover on the MANLINESS of this deodorant and the “MAN-SIZED protection” it offers: “With a fresh clean smell that could ONLY BE MASCULINE! … For men and MEN ONLY!”
Because of course most men in the UK in the 1960s didn’t use deodorant and were slightly suspicious of men who did.
Hurst is a man’s man from a man’s world of manly, smelly locker rooms, pitches, barracks, terraces and factories. But in case we still thought that there might be any ambiguity about his use of deodorant, despite the voiceover’s insistence, as the BFI website blurb points out, the ad is careful to show us that Hurst’s MANLY deodorant is definitely not for the benefit of MEN. Target is to be used ONLY after the match and locker-room towel-flicking is over – because it has a heterosexual aim.
Scrubbed-up, suited and booted and sprayed with the fresh clean MANLY smell of Target, Geoff has three ‘dolly-birds’ throwing themselves at him down the boozer (and maybe a fourth at the bar getting another round in). I hope he kept the shin-pads on.
Then again, for a previous generation of men such as some of the older ones we glimpse cheering on the MEN ONLY terraces in their cloth caps – who definitely aren’t the target market – young Geoff’s hanging out with all these women, with his hair all nice and his armpits ‘protected’ would likely have been seen as the height of effeminacy rather than a reassuring proof of heterosexuality.
He’ll be drinking from a stemmed glass next!
(Even worse, in just a couple of generations, he ended up swinging it around like this.)
Canadian performance artist and humpy former erotic entertainment industry model Brent Ray Fraser recently appeared on France’s Got Talent, knocking one out for the panel.
A portrait, that is.
Slightly disappointing to discover that France’s version of Simon Cowell’s talent show has exactly the same format as the UK one – right down to the camp judges. Though they seem to have economised on Ant and Dec, opting for just a single sniggering Dec Francaise.
It is though rather impressive that France considers a naked, buff man basically masturbating with paint good family entertainment. Although Britain’s Got Talent has featured singing male strippers, they kept their stuffed undies on. Mr Fraser’s paint-balling would bring the safety curtain down over here.
France however seemed très amusant. And it was very touching to see how excited women in the audience and particularly the two young lads in the audience got over this big piece of art.
To their credit, the French didn’t seem to mind that Fraser appears to have learned their tongue from John Wayne.
An earlier work of Fraser’s (below) got some shares on t’internet a while back. His naked hike to the top of a Canadian mountain to paint a Maple Leaf with his pride and joy is something of an epic. It looks like a great workout for the calves. Not just up all those steps – past gawping Japanese tourists – but all that tippy-toeing Fraser has to do to reach the canvas on the easel.
It also looks as if this penis painting lark might be a form of jelqing. Mind you, as Fraser dragged his poor paint-smeared glans back and forth across the raspy canvas I found myself wondering whether you have to be circumcised to be a naked painter. My snug uncut bell end certainly isn’t used to that kind of exposure.
Either way, Men’s Health really need to run a big spread on Fraser and his inspiring and creative fitness regime.
Cristiano chilling at Mr Armani's place. (But tensing his abs.)
A write-up in La Vanguardia of my lecture ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – a Permanent Spectacular Revolution’ at the ‘Men in Movement‘ conference in Barcelona last week, which was organised by the Arts and Humanities department of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Many thanks to everyone involved for their hard work and kind hospitality. With special thanks to Dr Begonya Enguix Grau, the driving force behind this timely event – someone who not only knows her anthropological onions, but also the best places to visit in Barcelona and was great, generous company despite having broken her toe the previous week.
She even managed to organise warm and sunny weather in late November.
While prepping for my Barcelona lecture, ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – a Permanent, Spectacular Masculine Revolution’, this video serendipitously popped up into MetroDaddy’s timeline on Twitter.
It’s an exploration of the meaning of being called ‘metrosexual’ by professional bodybuilder and popular online fitness guru Steve Cook, who has his own YouTube channel SwoldierNation where he offers workout tips, vlogs, and totally ‘hench’ eye candy to those who wanna be like him or just wanna be with him.
There’s a whole humpy army of these online fitness coaches/ exhibitionists today – and according to my buff and brainy Chilean stand-up chum Villouta, they are making Men’s Health magazine look lame.
Like most of these YouTube heroes, Cook is an aesthetic/physique bodybuilder – that is, one that aims to look hot rather than HUGE. Horny rather than Arnie. Cover model rather than Rambo. He is out and proud about his metrosexuality, and says he’s been called metrosexual since high school – though not always in a positive fashion. In the vlog he rather touchingly shares with us his extensive product stash.
He also gets a pedicure, enjoys the comfy pink ‘girly’ chairs and then confronts some rather terrified looking mall-goers about what they understand ‘metrosexual’ to mean. I suspect they were as intimidated by his preposterously good looks, awesome body and self-confidence as much as the questions. I think I would have fainted.
Reading between the lines, Cook seems keen to emphasise that ‘metrosexual’ doesn’t mean ‘non heterosexual’ (he’s a married, hetero father). But then he does live in America, a country which since the early Naughties has had regular nervous breakdowns about the possible ambiguity of metrosexuality – hence those very American reaction-formations ‘machosexual’, ‘ubersexual’, ‘heteropolitan’ and ‘lumbersexual’. Which were in some ways oddly ‘gayer’ than what they were trying to run away from.
So kudos to Mr Cook for refusing to run away from the ‘metro’ tag and having the cojones to embrace and pamper it instead.
Of course, Cook who was born in 1984, is more of a second generation metrosexual – that’s to say, spornosexual. He has fashioned his own body into the ultimate accessory and hot commodity. A product. A brand.
And I for one am certainly buying. Even if he isn’t so great at research. He doesn’t seem to know who his ‘daddy’ is….
As ever, though the Brits are ahead of the curve, and more relaxed about the gay thing – even if their abs aren’t always Olympian standard. The short but charming video below by Jenny Wotherspoon (accompanying an excellent piece on spornosexuals by Theo Merz in The Daily Telegraph) is comprised of interviews with self-confessed spornosexuals from Newcastle, North East England – who aren’t ashamed of their love of lycra, or much bothered their own, more traditionally-minded parents keep asking them ‘are you sure you’re not gay?’.
There will be a range of very interesting, esteemed and knowledgeable contributors, and I will have the slightly unnerving honour of presenting the opening lecture, ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual: A Spectacular, Permanent Revolution’, on Wednesday 18th November at 6pm. So I’ll be sure to show plenty of slides and video clips of much hotter chaps than me.
The following day at 15.30 I’ll be on a panel discussing Men and Representations, presenting a short, mostly clean talk probing ‘Mainstream Male Anal(ity)’.
‘We all look but only some of us see’ is the slightly pretentious tagline for this new ‘Home Alone’ TV ad for the UK household furnishing store Habitat, part of their #HabitatVoyeur campaign.
Perhaps I’ve been doing too much ‘voyeuring’ online, but what I see when I look at the beginning of this ad, before the camera pulls back, is an aroused young man enjoying a hard furnishing – the head thrown back, the open mouth, the ecstatic bouncing, the Habitat pillows in the background.
Mind you, given the pervey conceit of the campaign – gawping through people’s windows, and the fact the previous ad had us spying on a couple snogging on an expensive sofa – maybe I’m not seeing too much. Maybe I’m seeing exactly what I was supposed to see.
Perhaps that’s why, when the camera dollies out and reveals the chap is, in fact dancing around his retro-hipster studio flat in his red socks and pants rather than doing a reverse cowboy, he appears to knowingly tease us by doing a spot of twerking in the full-length mirror before bopping into the bathroom, backwards.
Either way, I don’t think I’ll be dreaming of that coffee table.
So says pretty much everyone in Legend about Tom Hardy’s looks. And the latest re-telling of the story of Ronald and Reginald Kray, the sharp-suited, impeccably-groomed, glamorous gangster twins who ruled 1960s London’s underworld, is a mostly enjoyable movie which often gladdens the eye (even if it makes you wince a bit during the violent scenes).
How could it not? After all, it stars not one, but two Tom Hardys – he plays, as everyone must know now since it’s the whole conceit of the movie, both twins.
Despite this, it does manage to get a little boring sometimes. Legend makes the mistake of thinking that we’re more interested in ‘Reggie’ than ‘Ronnie’ – because he wasn’t the mad, ‘gay’ one.
So it has a from-beyond-the-grave voice-over ostensibly provided by Reggie’s first wife, Frances Shea (Emily Browning) who committed suicide in 1967, two years after their marriage. The narrative focus of the film is essentially on what it portrays as her doomed attempt to ‘save’ Reggie, domesticate him and make him ‘normal’ – and how this eventually kills her. But no one, apart from Frances, wants him to be normal (and maybe she didn’t either: her family disputes the film’s victimy portrayal of her). Certainly the audience doesn’t, they just want him to get busy with a ball-hammer.
What everyone – or was it just me? – wanted from Legend was a gayer version of Hardy’s best performance as Britain’s longest-serving solitary-confinement muscular psychopath in Bronson (2008) – which come to think of it was pretty gay anyway. And you do get some of that when ‘Ron’ is on camera: Hardy’s ‘fat poof’ is often frighteningly funny.
But I put the names ‘Reggie’ and ‘Ronnie’ in quotes because at a visual level Legend isn’t about the gangster twins, or London in the 1960s. It’s about Tom and his very ‘hot’, very 21st Century, very narcissistic on-screen sexuality – split into two halves, mad, ugly, gay ‘Reggie’ – and straight, pretty, sympathetic ‘Ronnie’, which fight it out for dominance in this psycho costume drama.
That’s why everyone talks about how ‘lahvelee’ ‘Reggie’ is. Reggie Kray certainly wasn’t bad looking for a gangster, and he scrubbed up very nicely, but he was definitely no Tom Hardy (and Hardy, son of South West London bohemians, is definitely no Cockney). It’s also why we marvel at how ugly Tom manages to make himself as ‘Ronnie’ – so that when ‘Ronnie’ says that ‘Reggie’ got all the looks we actually find ourselves agreeing instead of laughing at the in-gag.
Any film about the Krays would struggle to remain focused on the Krays with Hardy in it. He’s proper Hollywood. But with two Hardys it stands no chance – the twins, their story and the mythology end up spit-roasted by Hardy’s double-ended charisma and great performances (even though his ‘Ron’ did look a bit like a David Walliams character sometimes).
So it shouldn’t perhaps be surprising that the questions get a bit personal. Hardy, 37, who is married (to a woman), famously ‘shut down’ a gay reporter at a press conference for Legend recently when he contrasted his character Ronnie’s openness about his sexuality with what he called Hardy’s ‘ambiguous sexuality’ as suggested in previous interviews.
‘What on earth are you on about?’ retorted Hardy, clearly annoyed, eventually clarifying the question himself: ‘Are you asking me about my sexuality?’ ‘Sure’ replied the reporter. ‘Why?’ asked Hardy. When no reply came, Hardy dismissed him with a curt ‘Thank you’.
The interview the reporter had in mind was a candid one Hardy gave a gay magazine in 2008 (to publicise RocknRolla, in which he played a gay gangster) where he acknowledged he had experimented sexually with men when he was younger: “’As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor for f***’s sake. I’m an artist. I’ve played with everything and everyone,” he said. “But I’m not into men sexually. I love the form and the physicality but the gay sex bit does nothing for me.”
After a backlash from some of the gay commentariat to Hardy’s rather more clenched response to the 2015 press conference probings, Hardy stated:
“I’m under no obligation to share anything to do with my family, my children, my sexuality – that’s nobody’s business but my own. And I don’t see how that can have anything to do with what I do as an actor, and it’s my own business.”
Despite the apparent use of his family and children as sexuality shields in that sentence, the gist of it is true. I also have some sympathy for Tom’s pique at being asked about his ‘sexuality’ (which always means non-heterosexuality) at a crowded press conference, being a married Hollywood heartthrob these days. Moreover, the seven-year-old interview quotes from the earlier part of his career don’t actually demonstrate that his own sexuality is ‘ambiguous’ or that he is now hiding anything – at most he stated that he was bi-curious when younger but is no longer.
That said, Legend is a film which makes his on-screen sexuality into a business. Show business. The drama of the movie is Hardy’s bi/two-sexual cinematic personae. Legend is a bit like Top Gun, but with ‘Tom’ playing both Ice Man (Val Kilmer) and Maverick – where Ice Man wins (and Kelly McGillis kills herself).
‘Reggie’, Hardy’s straight half, aspires, somewhat, to normality; ‘Ronnie’, Hardy’s gay half, revels in deviancy and keeps dragging ‘Reggie’ back to the bent and crooked – and making sure they never part. That’s why Ron is portrayed as openly – and unambiguously – homosexual (“I’m a ‘omosexual”, “I prefer boys”) not interested in women, when in fact he described himself as bisexual (and married a woman while in prison). Reg is portrayed as straight, when he seems to have also been bisexual, but not so openly as Ron.
Yes, sexuality is a confusing business. No wonder the movie simplifies things – just like the popular press.
Reginald reportedly ‘came out’ in a letter published shortly after his death. Here’s how it was covered in a UK tabloid the Sunday People in 2000, headlined: ‘REGGIE KRAY CONFESSES FROM GRAVE: I AM GAY’:
GANGSTER Reggie Kray has made an amazing confession from beyond the grave – his hardman image concealed that he was GAY.
Reggie poured out his darkest secret in a letter written as he faced blackmail over his homosexuality.
He handed me the astonishing two-page admission in a prison visiting room and asked for it to be published after his death.
So there you have it. Reggie was a self-confessed (dead) GAY homosexual. Except he wasn’t. The very next sentence in the same report reads:
The once-feared East End crime boss wrote: “I wish for the public to know that I am bisexual.”
‘Gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are often mixed up with ‘bisexual’ in the accounts of the twins’ lives, because culturally we tend to mix up ‘gay’ and ‘bi’ when talking about men. Although attitudes are changing, we often still too often think of male bisexuality as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or ‘queer’ (because it’s ‘emasculating’ – e.g. ‘once-feared’). Whereas female bisexuality tends to be thought of as heterosexual (because it’s ‘hot’, or because female sexuality is ‘complicated’). And as Hardy himself has discovered, admitting to a bi-curious youth can mean that you are assumed to be at least bisexual or ‘ambiguous’ in the bedroom as an adult.
I don’t claim to know anything about Hardy’s ‘real’ sexuality – I’m totally out of the celebrity sex gossip loop, which frankly, is usually mythology and fantasy anyway, even and especially when provided by other celebs. Likewise, ‘gaydar’ is a very faulty instrument indeed, prone to squealing feedback and hair-raising short-circuits. (And unlike it seems almost everyone else on the planet, I have no information and no opinion on the other Hollywood Tom’s ‘real’ sexuality either.)
Besides, a few slutty selfies aside, I’m much more interested in Tom H’s on-screen sexuality. Which is radiantly, brazenly bi-responsive. It’s not ambiguous – it’s ambisexual. Hardy’s dazzling bi-brilliance lights up the screen – it is what makes him such a charismatic, watchable actor, in the mould, dare I say it, of some of the greats, such as James Dean and Marlon Brando (cutely, Tom is the same titchy height 5’9”, as Marlon).
There’s a rather ridiculous Romeo & Juliet scene in Legend where a drunken ‘Reggie’ proposes to Frances through her bedroom window at the top of a drainpipe. But thanks to Tom’s tender talents, instead of scoffing at the cheesiness of it, you find yourself hoping, when the hard man fishes out the engagement ring, that he doesn’t fall and hurt his lahvlee face.
Regardless of his private sexuality, the ‘business’ of Hardy’s on-screen sexuality in many of his other movies is definitely not monosexual, depending as it does on a certain homoerotic-homosocial appeal, and a ‘hard man’/‘soft man’ tension, androgyny even. In addition to his early Band of Brothers/Black Hawk Down fresh-faced, all-boys-together soldierly roles, he’s, as we’ve seen, played a gay gangster before. In Inception he psychically ‘cross-dressed’ and delivered some wonderfully camp lines with panache: “Mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
In Warrior (2011) he played a heavily-muscled young MMA fighter forced to wrestle his equally fit brother in a Speedo – but with a happy ending. Even the bottom-feeder comedy This Means War (2012), in which two CIA killers compete for the same girl, was primarily about the passionately Platonic romance between him and Chris Pine, an actor who seems to be 70% hair and 30% teeth. It was only Hardy’s sympathetic skills as an actor and his dazzling bi-brilliance that made you care about their relationship, Pine or that atrocity of a movie at all.
Hardy has a special proclivity for playing ‘hard men’ who are soft and receptive inside. It’s what makes him such an entrancing sight on the silver screen, for men and women alike. It’s all there in his sweetly engaging face and twinkly eyes, with those big kissable, suckable lips – atop his street-fighter body (young Brando had an angel’s face on a stevedore’s body). Perhaps because of his appreciation for ‘the form and physicality’ of masculinity, Tom is the kind of bloke a lot of straight lads would ‘go gay’ for – and plenty of gay ones would go even gayer for. A man’s man in the modern sense of the phrase. Hardy’s career has been made at the place where desire and identification meet.
There is a magical kind of misrecognition involved in going to the movies: you see, especially when younger, the movie star as your idealised self. Your twin who is identical with what you should be, rather than what you are. In the darkness of the cinema, the brilliant shadow on the screen becomes your real, long lost twin – you sitting in the dark are the false, found one.
Which brings us back to the sexuality of Legend and the doubly-doomed nature of the deceased wife attempted-redemption storyline. Twins are by their very nature ‘homosexual’ that is ‘same-sexual’ – at least to non-twins looking in. They share the same conception, the same womb at the same time, the same birth, as wells as usually the same infancy, potty-training and childhood, and the same puberty. Intimacies far beyond those of lovers. Identical twins also reflect one another, in a narcissistic fashion. In a sense, they are born with the life-companion everyone else has to search for – and they can also watch themselves starring in the movie of their own lives.
So no wonder the Krays’ biographer recently claimed that the twins had sex with one another when adolescents. Or, as the Daily Mail headline put it: ‘THEY FOUGHT AS ONE. THEY KILLED AS ONE. BUT DID THE KRAY TWIN’S UNCANNY BOND LEAD THEM TO BREAK THE ULTIMATE TABOO?’.
Whether or not it’s true, it’s something that should definitely have been included in Legend. Tom-on-Tom action should not have been restricted to those fight scenes….
Saw Hue & Cry t’other night on the tellybox for the first time since I was a nipper.
This recently digitally restored kid-oriented Ealing Comedy presents as its climax a London-wide mobilisation of boys (and a few tom-boys) for a ‘big adventure’ – beating up baddies that the police had failed to nab, or even notice. I always loved that kind of film – in which kids show-up the groan-ups, and also give them a good hiding.
Officially the first Ealing comedy, it was directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to direct The Lavender Hill Mob) and shot in 1946, just as the Welfare State was being founded and the horrors of the past were being swept away by the post-war Labour administration of Clement Attlee – who had himself swept away Winston Churchill (the wartime leader who was not nearly so popular as official histories like to tell us).
Maybe it’s because I’m now the middle-aged enemy, but watching it today, Hue & Cry seems really rather disturbing to adult, contemporary health & safety sensibilities. All those kids in rags running around in bombed-out houses, wading through sewers and getting into fights with cops and robbers? Someone call social services!
The sainted Alistair Sim (and no, I didn’t write that book about him) makes an appearance as the enjoyably eccentric and laughably timid author of the ‘blood and thunder’ comic book stories that the barrow boy protagonist (played with enthusiasm but little skill by Harry Fowler) is obsessed with. Scarf-wearing Sim lives at the top of a German expressionist spiral staircase, his only companions a cat and the Home Service.
But it is bomb-damaged, bankrupted London that is the real star of this movie – shrouded in steam and smoke, with chimneys, spires and dock derricks the only things troubling the still-Victorian skyline. Digitally-restored and viewed on HD widescreen, the past seems almost unrecognisable – even the past in the form of vaguely remembering watching a scratchy print of it on 1970s TV.
Bomb-damaged London is populated, in its bomb-craters and burned-out shells, by its bomb-damaged cheeky-chappy lads and lasses. Intentionally or not, beneath all the jolly cockernee japery, Hue & Cry presents a kind of comic-book PTSD in which the apparently orphaned and traumatised children of the war can’t stop fighting a global conflict that is already over. Note the surprising sadism of some of the fight scenes, in amongst the slapstick (does that baddie really need his head banging on the ground that many times?).
After the clip above ends, the Cockney hero finishes off the mini-tached, side-parted, long-fringed evil-genius (played confusingly by the later Dixon of Dock Green) after a lengthy showdown in a bunker-esque bombed-out warehouse – by jumping onto his prone stomach from the floor above. With great relish. In an earlier scene the gang tie up a glamorous female villain and set about torturing her to extract the identity of her criminal boss (her terror of mice turns out to be the key to her interrogation).
The real version of this world is the one that twins Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in 1933, grew up in: the semi-feral East End gangsters famous for the violence, sadism and terror tactics they employed building and maintaining their underworld empire in the 60s – a parallel demimonde that was both part of and also an affront to the ‘white heat’, glamour and shiny modernity of ‘Swinging London’. The Krays were the sewer rats of social mobility.
Like the tearaway in Hue & Cry they also couldn’t stop fighting the war that they grew up with – but were only interested in their own war, no one else’s. When they were conscripted into National Service in the early 1950s they decided the British Army was their enemy. By employing all kinds of fiendishly childish and inventively savage tactics (Ronald being proper psychotic probably helped) they won, and the British Army, like the cops and the baddies in Hue & Cry, beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught, giving the twins dishonourable discharges.
They then employed much same tactics on rival London gangs, effectively eliminating the opposition. When this terrifying comic-book duo were finally sentenced in 1969 to thirty years maximum security chokey for murder, the judge dryly observed: ‘society has earned a rest from your activities’. Ronald died in prison in 1995, aged 61; Reggie in 2000, aged 66. But they had already been immortalised on the big screen in the rather good 1990 film The Krays, played by brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, working class London lads who achieved riches and fame by being pop stars in the hit band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s – rather than by switchblades and gangs.
Another working class pop star, Steven Patrick Morrissey, had a year earlier anatomised the highly homoerotic hero-worship of the Krays and the pernicious glamour of violence in his single ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’.
For all their crimes, ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ are almost as fondly-regarded in British culture as an Ealing comedy, and arguably most of the UK gangster movies made in the 1990s and Noughties that followed The Krays were cartoonish homages to the terrible twins. They were certainly comical, even when they didn’t intend to be.
Their story has now been revisited again in a recently-released UK film Legend, starring Tom Hardy playing both roles. I’ve seen it and will offer you my pearls about it shortly. Suffice to say that it’s not so much about Ronald and Reggie, or about class, or about London in the 1960s.
It’s all about Tom – and the 21st Century’s obsession with male sexuality.