In Part 1 of this article, the evidence was laid out that writers are wary of presenting sexual detail. Peter Stothard, a Booker judge, had read 145 new British novels in one year and concluded that our writers prefer to close down the action at the bedroom door. The article also considered the psychological and cultural constraints and the idea of taste and decency. Some writers are now saying that this avoidance of sexual detail in literature is unwarranted. Sarah Hall, author of Haweswater, said in a recent Guardian interview, ‘Most novels avoid sex like the plague, but I love writing about it.’ She said she likes extreme situations: ‘people pushed out of their comfort zones; the civil veneer stripped off. Sex does that.’ So why are other writers more wary and how much of this is to do with the mechanics of making a story work? What is it that is shocking about sex when we read the details? Is it just that it comes in breach of a custom of silence and that, if that custom was broken for long enough, we would find it as normal to read a description of a penis as of a hairdo or pair of shoes? Or is there something in the nature of a penis or a vagina that makes it a bum note to describe it in the middle of a love-scene, even though it is fully present in it and there is no love scene without it?
There are unmentionable parts of human experience. At least, many writers seem to think so. The chair of the Man Booker judges in 2012, Sir Peter Stothard, observed before the rash of Fifty Shades inspired erotica distorted the picture, that literary sex had ‘gone out of fashion’. He reached that conclusion on the greatest possible authority, having just read 145 new British novels. This is not what was expected when legal changes freed writers to describe copulation more lucidly. Then it seemed that the main obstacle to sexual candour was the danger of being banned or imprisoned. But clearly there are other restraints at work. In terms of literature, some of these restraints may be psychological or cultural and some may derive from the mechanics of constructing a story.
When it comes to British politics, sex doesn't sell. Amid a war on pornography, there has been no mention of it during the election nor any promise one way or the other about how it should be treated. The British press loves sex when it comes in the form of scandals or scantily-clad young women, but it's not so keen on covering it as part of the news. Political parties feel no need to discuss their policy on sex or pornography, so major changes to the law, such as clamp-downs on online porn or significant changes to the rules around sex work, are ignored at election time and often passed with little debate during a parliament.
Any return from a visit ‘up-country’ is greeted with at least mild interest in the Old Doom Bar. If it is to London the attention is closer. Most of us make trips of greater or lesser frequency to the Great Wen and so are not entirely unsophisticated. Still, the stuff that happens there, happens here later, if at all. So it’s worth finding out about. The first thing your correspondent was able to report was the revival of the scantily clad female on posters in the underground. Backalong, ladies in their underwear were liberally displayed alongside the escalators and in the station concourses. Then they vanished in proper response to feminist complaints and the changing times. Now, at least one advertiser has broken ranks. Proteinworld.com offers what seems to be a slimming product on the premise of asking if one’s body is ‘beach ready’.
‘Girl Power 3.0’ is how the Observer described Ladybeard back in 2013, while over on Radio 4, Jane Garvey hailed it as ‘stylish’. This is an unusual level of hype for any student publication, and raised Ladybeard from the masses of magazines that are born and die each year in universities across the country. It had a lot to live up to when in late 2013, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, ‘The Body Issue’ was finally published. The editors describe the magazine as ‘an antidote to the toxic feminine and masculine ideals promoted by women’s magazines’. After a launch party in Cambridge, the first issue was distributed for free in ten universities. Then the money ran out, editors got sucked into exams, and Ladybeard went silent. It seemed that ‘Girl Power 3.0’ would suffer the same fate as its student mag compatriots; consigned to a box in the corner of a childhood room recently requisitioned by an unemployed arts graduate.
I brought three books with me when I moved to Paris on a £14 Megabus: one of them was The Story of O. I'd squirrel away in the predictably unheated top-floor bedroom-cum-kitchen-cum-occasional bathroom (I would say "garret", but it'll make me sound even more of a nob) and read it, while I waited for Ab Fab to stream. Published in France in 1954 by the appropriately monikered Jean-Jacques Pauvert, it's a dirty great romp of chains, castles, masks and leather, and its author was a 47-year-old editorial secretary, whose boyfriend had mouthed off that no woman was capable of writing an erotic novel. Anne Desclos, noted variously as 'prudish' and 'nun-like', wrote under a pen-name at Gallimard Publishers but invented a new one – Pauline Réage – for O, which became an immediate success, was banned in court, and whose author only revealed herself 40 years post-publication. I believe the phrase is "slam dunk".
“Don’t you think there’s something a bit psychotic animal about the eyes?” Friend and I are looking at the profile photographs for my next date, and I can’t disagree. I also can’t disagree when she says we appear to have absolutely nothing in common. So what? Prove to me that if we both like chess and Thai cooking we’ll live happily ever after, and I’ll sign up to date only those men who like eating salty popcorn in bed with a bottle of Merlot. We lean in closer. “And look at the shoulders - a bit Twickenham fly half for you, no?” What she’s saying, of course, is that Dave is unlikely to be in touch with his feminine side, but right now that suits me just fine. Lately I’ve had my fill of sensitive and thoughtful men in their 50s who say they’re easy-going and like to keep trim. Trim? I never want to meet a man who would describe himself as 'trim': it’s about as sexually enticing as those beige walking trousers which you detach at the knee to create shorts. “Well, it’s a done deal now. We’re meeting at 8pm.”
Since the film came out, I’ve heard from a few friends what a miserable waste of time they thought it was. Now, having watched it, it’s obvious why they thought that: there’s not much bondage or sex in it. I’m shocked. Have all of my friends been watching hard-core porn? I tried it once and didn’t like it. Let me explain: The Descent is a terrifying film, right until the point that you see the monster. The same goes for porn. I don’t want to see the beast.
Last month saw the publication of the award-winning art critic and curator Richard Cork’s book, Face to Face: Interviews with Artists. Cork was 18 when he chanced upon Picasso, drew his portrait, and talked to him. That meeting sparked a lifelong enthusiasm for talking to artists that has continued throughout Cork’s impressive career. The collection of revealing conversations, first recorded for BBC radio, spans the pantheon of contemporary British artists, from Howard Hodgkin, Richard Hamilton, and David Hockney to Anish Kapoor, Grayson Perry, and Rachel Whiteread. Whether drawing out Francis Bacon’s musings on the afterlife or the story behind Tracy Emin’s My Bed, Cork’s approach is always insightful and sympathetic. Here ER’s Jamie Maclean (who strangely published one of Cork’s earliest articles) turns the tables and interviews the interviewer about the process of talking to great artists.
There was a curious incident with a microphone during the Conservative manifesto launch. David Cameron gave his speech in the usual manner – tepid, uninspiring, broadly competent – and then took questions from the gathered journalists. Whenever he pointed to a journalist a party worker would dash over and stick the microphone out by their mouth. Several journalists tried to hold it, as is usually the way with these things, but she kept it firmly in her grip. Clearly she'd been instructed not to give it to them. Journalists with a microphone can ask follow-up questions. Cameron hates follow up questions, because they are the only way to really hold someone to account. One question is useless. You ask something damaging, the politician appears to address the question, then deploys a bridging phrase, and then just ignores it and talks about whatever he wants to talk about.