The Marquis de Sade tells us that his epic catalogue of perversions, The 120 Days of Sodom, should be treated like a vast banquet. Enjoy the breadth of what’s on offer, pick what you enjoy, and leave what you don’t. Criticise neither the host for giving you such wealth of choice, nor your fellow diners for picking what you find unappetising. Appreciate that dishes which might seem the same to you are, in fact, delicately nuanced. In short, don’t be prudish at the table: be philosophical. Admittedly, advice from Sade should usually be taken with a large pinch of salt (I’m no advocate for abduction, cannibalism, and baroque torture machines myself). Yet we could do worse than adopt his approach to explicit literature. Sex, like eating, is invariably a question of taste. So while Eimear McBride’s critique of Desire: 100 of literature’s sexiest stories is undoubtedly well intentioned, I can’t help but think she would make a judgemental dinner guest.
It’s a funny time of year. Somehow the absence of visitors makes the landscape quieter. In the season it is as if the hum of their activities transmits even at night to the moors. Down at the Old Doom Bar we regulars retreat to the snug in small numbers and the landlord or his wife sometimes join us, though willing to knock out scampi and chips if we fancy them. The women are less in evidence. This is because they are busy with seasonal preparations. As well as list-making, baking and provision planning these include two day excursions to favoured shopping centres such as Bath which is a smart city with spas and high end hairdressers.
There’s something rotten in the West. In the UK, the rabid anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Brexit campaign translated into a vote to leave the EU. In the US, a lunatic sociopath won the presidency on the back of a racialised political programme, Biblical levels of misogyny and a constant, almost cult-like worship of aggression and rudeness.
There is nothing like Joyce Mansour’s poetry. It expresses the erotic yet cruel power of love and desire. The poems are stark and painful, with an almost frightening and obsessive streak of sado-masochism. The consuming madness of sex and death are fiercely and passionately described with shocking and violent imagery, yet there is often a moving sensitivity in her work. Her vocabulary is precise, every word counts, these poems are bare and spare.
Sex is not often discussed in any direct way in our group. It arose though because one occasional member with literary pretensions happened to have been to the Cheltenham Festival. She (and it could only have been a ‘she’) drew to our attention to a suggestion by Jenni Murray of BBC’s Woman’s Hour during an address there, that schools should have porn lessons. That is, opportunities to review and critically analyse pornography and its underlying messages.
I had a friend tell me about her erotic novel recently, a heavily horse-themed saga she’s been writing on and off for years and, running as it currently does to some 80,000 words, is nigh-on ready to reach the audience it deserves. I’m surprised when she says fervently that no living soul will ever clap eyes on the thing, and that it’ll lie on her hard drive as innocently as a copy of the Racing Post for time immemorial. She’s not embarrassed by it: far from, but it’s personal. My meeting with Jodi Ellen Malpas in a Soho hotel reminded me of this, if only because the New York Times-bestselling author began her career doing just the same thing: writing in secret, without expecting that her work would one day be read by millions.
There was a particular charm about the way the British hockey girls celebrated their win. Although the sport is officially billed as ‘women’s’ hockey, the team members referred to themselves as ‘the girls’; much as males talk about ‘the lads’. One of our group (who claimed to have studied sociology) remarked on the semiotics of these descriptors. It was evident that female sports had to be described as ‘women’s’ - neither ‘female’ nor ‘ladies’ were options because the former was too clinical and the latter plain old-fashioned. But would it have been acceptable for third parties to refer to our heroines as ‘girls’?