Like many people, Darren Crystal had a set of goals he wished to accomplish by certain ages. Keeping a checklist of personal achievements is as common in our time as it was seventy years ago, in 2012, when Darren spent six months as an intern at the Hapscombe Collection. For a student of Museum Studies, this already marked a crucial step towards his first ambition: to be working as a curator in his own right by the age of twenty-seven, a number selected in part for its ‘rock’n'roll significance’, and in part due to his wish that his grandmother, Dorothy Weaver, might still be around to see it.
In early March that year, Darren used a post on his blog ‘The Exhibitionist’, which was not intended for public view, to reflect on another private challenge. The then-Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg’s assertion in the build-up to the 2010 election that he had slept with ‘no more than thirty women’ by the age of forty-four had spurred Darren to maintain a running tally of his own sexual conquests set against his age, aiming for a similar ratio; at twenty-one, with an upcoming birthday and ‘three-and-a-half’ in the left-hand column, it was starting to look like he had set himself a daunting task.
If Darren was aware of the fact that he was no more or less promiscuous than the average British male of his age, it did nothing to diminish his anxiety. His reflections on his own limited erotic experience do however provide something very little historical research can offer: an insight into an area of the past which, even now, mostly remains behind closed doors. Recalling the loss of his virginity, Darren gives us what has been confirmed – by his partner, who is still living, and who wished to remain anonymous – as a fairly accurate rendition of his own physical technique, though with six years’ distance between the act and the account it would be polite to assume that some of the more obvious defects described might subsequently have been improved upon.
‘I don’t really remember anything about her body, even when I was inside it. That’s probably my fault more than hers. What I mostly remember was her clothes, and how long it took to get them off; every garment she was wearing seemed to have some kind of devious secret mechanism embedded within it. Even the T-shirt. It was as if Topshop had commissioned a range designed by abstinence campaigners without either of us knowing. I kept dodging elbows and armpits, and the time it took to pull her tights over her hips and down made me feel like I was the nurse, undressing an elderly patient for one last cold check-up. She probably thought the same on my account. She spent so long fiddling with the buckle on my belt that I thought she was making a half-hearted attempt to tease me. It had never really occurred to me before that there’s probably a reason most people put on and remove their own clothes.’
The encounter took place on a nurse’s couch in Jesus College, Oxford; the nurse herself had vacated the premises to make way for one of the visiting sixth-formers who had come from state schools around the country to experience academic life in a shadowing project known, more aptly than its organisers might have realised, as the ‘Outreach and Access Scheme’. Darren’s own participation was widened by a prospective student from the Isle of Man, who went on to have a distinguished career in criminal law. There was also a bed in the room assigned to her, but it creaked so much that Darren feared catching tetanus from a rusty spring, and also complained of ‘insufficient friction.’ While he at least attempted tenderness towards his partner, the furniture received no such attention:
‘The bed was like wrestling a beanbag, but up on the couch it was even worse, with my knees jamming and rubbing on that tacky paper-plastic coating, ankles clanking against the white metal apparatus, and trying to move the lever that would lean the whole thing back like a massage chair while trying at the same time to move my hand inside her trousers, and she’s feeling nothing, breathing not with ‘Yes, that’s good, more of it,’ sounds but in the way you breathe when you’re having difficulty unlocking a door, and the lactic acid is building up in my wrist, my arms stretching out in both directions like I’m waiting to be crucified, and I’m wondering how this could ever be something that was any fun for anyone ever.’
The Hapscombe Collection’s current exhibition – ‘Darren Crystal: A Life Connected’ – features an original nurse’s couch in use in Oxford in 2006; long since retired from service, its identifying marks have been removed, so we cannot claim with certainty that it was to this particular item of furniture that Darren’s thoughts returned on that March day six years later, and it is assumed that the relevant sheets would have long since been incinerated – so any biological traces are gone. The couch in the Collection’s possession is nonetheless evocative, and as a mass-produced unit, fundamentally indistinguishable from that which saw and supported my subject’s rite of transition from adolescence into adult life. Learning was important to Darren, and while debate continues among the museum staff as to which of his sexual problems were persistent throughout his subsequent history, and which were lost to time’s great tide, he does at least identify a series of ‘mistakes’ that the couple made over the course of their experience of mutual discovery. Whether or not he learnt from them, this list is instructive; in some ways, more so than the official educational seminars he would give in his role at the Collection.
‘Mistake #1: Drinking a six-pack before we started kissing, meaning that I had to stop to go to the bathroom every twenty minutes. ‘I don’t know what hat I’m supposed to be wearing! I need a lie-down!’
#2: Speaking of hats, handicapping ourselves before the sex Olympics even started with a condom taken from the welfare supply, not a supple, gracile Durex Fetherlite but a thick, bright green Pasanté number, a heavy-duty rubber ring that looked like a sausage coating and was strong enough to contain an industrial accident. She tried to help me on with it, but she bit her nails, had bitten them earlier that day, and we had to stop because the jagged arrowheads pointing from her fingertips risked slicing the whole thing wide open, and the spermicide felt weird against her raw and swollen cuticles. I had to go it alone, like Shackleton. 1
#3: Doing anything at all with a girl with swollen cuticles. There were only two ways she could hold me: so gingerly I once had to check if she was even there, or with such piston-pumping roughness that the morning after I looked at my foreskin in the shower and discovered what looked like friction burns. And I wanted to return the favour, but when I tried it was all I could do to stop myself asking if I could turn the light on to get a better look at what I was doing. Searching for her clitoris was like trying to complete a tiny Rubik’s cube in the dark, if every thirty seconds the Rubik’s cube changed position for no earthly reason. And what if I overshot, and gave her the impression I wanted to make our first sexual acquaintance with her arsehole or, worse, her belly-button? I worked grimly in the deathly silence, broken only by the strange, squidgy sound of fingers exploring disinterested sensitive tissue; the unexpected releases of air, as sexy as a suction cup.’
Darren’s fourth mistake is really a series of related and compounded errors, but when a man is already laying bare so many signs of physical and emotional inadequacy, questioning the taxonomy he employs to do so seems a little churlish. ‘
#4: Going straight to the hard stuff, before the stuff is sufficiently hard. We skipped oral completely. Not really knowing anything about each other, it seemed somehow impolite to suggest I stick my face against her vagina, or whatever you’re supposed to call it these days. And she didn’t want me in her mouth because – well, would you? Ever since Andrew told me in Year 9 about his sister’s friend who got her boyfriend’s frenulum caught in her retainer and had to go to hospital like that, still snared together, like a work of modern sculpture, the idea has always put me a little on edge – losing control, jerking and flailing in a mouth full of teeth. So we cut that scene, but every position we tried was an embarrassment, even when we wheeled the couch against the wall. We got through two condoms when the first fell off, and the first ten pages of the Kama Sutra. We’d set ourselves up, grind back and forth to check the angles, and then I’d try and fail to cram myself into her like a chef stuffing a pepper. It went on for two hours and nobody came. It was like Waiting for Godot.‘
One issue we know Darren never overcame was his uneasiness with the nomenclature of intercourse. In a later post, after he had left London and had, according to his browser history, mostly been occupying his time with excerpts from the pornographic parody movie Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, he again raises the vexing question of how, in a romantic context, one ought to refer to the sexual organs. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation, naked with another person, where both of us knew what to call our genitals. That doesn’t seem to me like a good way to establish the right footing,’ Darren comments, before offering in list form his verdict on the semantic subtext of a range of terms then popularly available.
Figure 1: A comparative assessment of widely-used sexual epithets, 03/06/2012
Prick – Very Rochester, very Lady Chatterley. Sounds like something that’s going to pop a balloon. Like inviting D H Lawrence to your child’s birthday as a party entertainer.
Dick – Shades of teen movies, scrawled in notebooks, drawn with sharpies on the faces of sleeping friends. 2 Does anyone really want to ‘take a dick’? Is that on anybody’s Amazon wish-list?
Cock – simple, rigorous, says what it means and gets on with it, but probably a little too porn-y for daily usage. ‘How do you like my cock in the morning?’ ‘I like mine with a hug.’
Penis – Sounds petty, finicky, something you look for with tweezers under a microscope. Think it’s the Latin ending.
Shaft – I’m fine with this one, but I don’t think anyone else is.
Cunt – Unfortunate tendency to sound like a term of abuse in basically all situations. Not recommended for use in America. Or anywhere, really.
Vagina – People with medical conditions have vaginas. People on CSI. Looked up the origin on Wikipedia. Unsettlingly militaristic.
Pussy – Childish and infantilising, manages to be both euphemistic and obscene. A young girl’s term of endearment for a kitten used with slavering gusto by a stiff-cocked man with a moustache. Hard to know who’s enjoying this.
Twat– Same problem as cunt, with additional accent problems. Are there any others? I think that’s literally it. Which leaves us with ‘me’ and ‘you’ – ‘get inside me’; ‘how should I touch you?’ – reducing the complex and various surfaces of the body and one’s identity within it to a few inches of active skin. Clearly inadequate. More research needed.’
* Darren was never able to complete this ‘research’, the terms of which – like those of many of his undergraduate essays – were in any case not clearly defined. Three weeks and three days after typing these words, he would be dead, and more than half a century later, Darren Crystal himself is the topic of a growing corpus of academic study. We now know that Darren would achieve few, if any, of the ‘grown-up goals’ set out in his list, and some of those aspirations now make for saddening reading. His erotic ambitions seem especially unfeasible: then as now, some men and women were capable of having frequent casual sex, disengaged from romantic attachment, but Darren’s life shows no real, convincing attempt to turn this widespread fantasy of uncomplicated abundance into reality, and on balance, like a number of his wilder dreams (for instance, his stated intention to own and operate a travelling Chaucerian carnival under the business name of ‘Cherry Fayre’), we have no indication of how Darren thought he would be able to manage the result in practice.
Such a goal sits uneasily with the simultaneous commitment Darren displayed elsewhere in his own reading and writing to the medieval ideal of the single, sighing lover, sacrificing himself at the feet of the one unattainable object; his solution to this paradox was more or less to multiply the objects to include a sizeable proportion of womankind. The purpose of the present volume is not to judge Darren for the contradictions of his personality, but to unravel them as they were manifested over his six months as an employee of the Hapscombe Collection, and in the process to guide the reader through his own unravelling. My background is in archaeological reconstruction, and I have approached the subject from that angle, aiming not to present any more than the sum of what we possess. Our data archive on Darren is substantial, but as with all such evidence from the early days of the Internet there are blips and lacunae even in the digital record. I aim not to invent explanations where the facts are absent, but simply to provide those facts and, occasionally, what inferences we might draw from them.
* Throughout the text, reference is made to the online entities which formed the primary means of communication and content-sharing on the Internet as it existed in the years around 2012. Some of these systems and sites have lasted; some, like Instagram and the providers of short-form pornography, have faded, becoming distant digital footnotes in the vast and varied code of contemporary history. Familiar or not, these monoliths – among them Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, eBay, Microsoft – were for Darren Crystal as ubiquitous as high-street stores, and if in my description their procedures and their practices seem as archaic as the latter notion, I can only respond that in many cases, they were, and readers doubting that the online world could operate according to these interfaces have only to explore the Hapscombe Collection’s software archives if they want to experience their features for themselves.
This is an introductory work, and to avoid explanatory clutter many of the institutions described above will be glossed no further; footnotes are provided only where it is felt that understanding of Darren’s world, or worlds – both in its physical and in its secondary digital existence – will be impeded by the mention of an unfamiliar brand, content provider, or a noted personality. Where the role of such an entity is clear from its context, glosses will be omitted. A brief bibliography can be found at the back of the print volume, and its contents accessed through the DigiLib edition, but if I could recommend one book to orientate the uncertain reader in the cybernetic landscape of the period, Dr Matthew D. Polonsky’s To Kill A Giant: The Rise and Fall of ‘Profile Politics’ provides an ample summary of the ‘world that wouldn’t stop changing’ – though only Darren Crystal and those like him can relay for us how it felt to live it as it changed.
- Julia Gschwandtner, July 2082.
‘Roland Barthes was killed by a vegetable truck. Frank O’Hara by a dune buggy. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to find out what a dune buggy even was. I don’t know why, but I have a very strong feeling that this is the kind of thing which is going to happen to me. I am exactly the sort of person this would happen to. I could never be run over by a normal vehicle, a Volkswagen Golf or a Mazda or something (do normal people have Mazdas?) From a very young age I’ve had it written on my face: ‘Wait me for to finish my A-levels first, then knock me down with a milk float.’
These are the opening words of Darren Crystal’s inaugural blog entry for the year 2012. They were posted on January 7th at 01:15, and timestamps suggest composition began late at night on the previous day. What strikes the reader making Darren’s acquaintance for the first time is the palpable sense of his own importance, and the sense of waste and bathos that would accompany his loss: later in the post, he imagines his own ‘brains all over the road’, casting himself in the role of ‘the golden boy who steps out in front of the bakery lorry. Hovis for maximum pathos. Cue weepy Northern music. Elbow, maybe. Elbow would work.’ 3 Here is a young graduate student comparing himself explicitly to Roland Barthes, one of the most renowned literary theorists of the twentieth century, before indulging in a passage of bizarre reverie about the thinker’s death:
‘Sometimes I imagine him stretched out flat on the boulevard, bedevilled by courgettes and marrows. They surround him like a chalk outline. Avocados tumble out with a screech of brakes. He’s been hit in the face by a flying tomato. The world’s leading semiologist is covered in pulp, which he’d probably find wryly amusing. Is a semiologist a real thing, or did I get that from The Da Vinci Code? 4 It doesn’t matter. A cucumber knocked him cold. A disquisition on the ironic kinship between the words ‘legumes’ and ‘lugubrious’ was presumably his final utterance.’
This is by no means the last unfounded presumption that the self-proclaimed ‘exhibitionist’ will display, though it is perhaps understandable why Darren should have been musing so morbidly on vehicle-related fatalities: his train journey from Peterborough to London was delayed for two hours, after a suicide on the track near Biggleswade. While waiting, he struck up an instant message conversation with a coursemate with whom he had had a brief romantic dalliance in the preceding term (the pair went on a maximum of five official ‘dates’, if Darren’s own account is to be believed), and who like Darren was about to begin a seven-month internship at the Hapscombe Collection.
Figure 2: ‘Chat’ conversation between Darren Crystal and Connie Pendleton, 06/01/2012, 15:05-15:28
DARREN: What’s up i’m on a train
So I’ll be seeing you next week I guess? Work buddies
DARREN: it’s not that nice actually
someone’s chucked himself in front of it
the patrons of this first capital connect service are not happy
although probably still more so than this guy was
CONNIE: Oh my God, that’s awful. Are you OK?
DARREN: I’m fine connie, i’m inside the train
can’t believe how unsympathetic these people are though
i literally just heard a woman say ‘sweep him up and put him a bag’
do you think train drivers carry bags like that?
CONNIE: I’ve never really thought about it…
That is really horrible, but I suppose you can’t dwell on it
Did you get the email from Jean Tandy?
DARREN: yeah I got it
sorry to hear you’re stuck in the archives, that’s rough
CONNIE: I applied for the archive job, that’s the one I wanted to get
DARREN: oh well no harm done then
’9 am sharp’ – she seems like a bit of a stickler for the rules
I googled her and she’s got really weird hair, it looks like one of those wind protectors you put on microphones
CONNIE: I think she’s just being professional
I’m looking forward to meeting her, she comes off really well on the radio.
DARREN: yeah sure
anyway that woman is still ranting about clearing the tracks
how important is her meeting anyway?
bet this guy’s family will be happy to hear that you got a great deal on some high- yield bonds once you persuaded the railway staff to scrape his pulped remains into a black binliner
This message was read, but perhaps unsurprisingly received no reply. It is unclear exactly what, if anything, Darren intended by the reference to ‘high-yield bonds’ in this context. His correspondent was Connie Pendleton, whose own contributions to the museum industry in subsequent years require no introduction, and indeed it is partly out of respect for Dr Pendleton’s memory that an exhibition based on the Crystal archive was so long in arriving – her consent to the Collection presenting the episodes in Darren’s life in which she features was a matter of the utmost importance to the Hapscombe team, and we are grateful for the assistance provided both during her lifetime and through the executors of her estate. At this point, Pendleton was a regular feature on ‘The Exhibitionist’, though its author took the tokenistic step of masking any references to his former love interest on his publicly-accessible blog with the cipher ‘Bumblebee’, for which no explanation has yet emerged. Darren did not share any links to the site (other than with prospective employers, as we shall soon discuss), viewing it as akin to a personal diary, but if Pendleton searched online for her new colleague’s name as often as he did for hers, she may well have discovered him speculating on the reasons for the break-up of what he, it would seem erroneously, describes as their ‘relationship’.
‘The last time I saw her was in Seven Sisters. I know that because she made a joke about Seven Brides and Seven Brothers, and I didn’t laugh because I’d never heard of it, and had to look it up on Wikipedia when I got home. Bumblebee was always doing things like that. We didn’t know the same musicals. What sort of basis for a relationship is that? 5 She didn’t like it when I kissed her in public, but by that point I wasn’t sure I liked kissing her either. It was a weird one; I kind of missed her mouth, or she avoided mine, and I just grazed her cheek and ear, like a dog nuzzling. I say I missed her mouth. I still miss it.’
Meditating on his recipient’s mouth – discussion of the particular properties of which will later reappear at length – and the memories brought back by his last contact with it, inspired Darren to discuss some of his other persistent preoccupations.
‘It reminded me of the time when I was sixteen, playing a servant in Romeo and Juliet. 6 And Juliet was posh and hot, and she had two friends in the audience: two posh, hot friends. I met them afterwards in the theatre bar, holding a pint of Carlsberg. I didn’t even like Carlsberg, but I had to drink something. They were twins.
I went over and tried to shake the first one’s hand, and she leant in for a kiss on the cheek. No one outside of my immediate family had ever kissed me on the cheek before. I tried to get my hand out of the way, adjust the position of my whole upper body, and make it across to the other cheek before it disappeared, before it was too late and I’d missed my chance. And while I tried to do that, I tipped maybe half the pint of Carlsberg in the lap of her white cotton dress.
‘I’m just, I’m really sorry.’
Ten minutes fussing around her with fumbling paper towels, my cheek burning redder than if she’d actually slapped it. It looked as if I’d come on her stomach. We didn’t speak for the rest of the evening.’
Having revisited this embarrassing incident, Darren’s natural instinct before even completing his post in the early hours of January 7th was to open a second browser tab and search for the words ‘posh hot girls’. He clicked through a series of videos on BangBank, a popular pornography streaming website, including extracts from the following titles:
- Angelica’s Palace (4:17)
- Cuntry Club Initiation (22:30)
- Jada Jewell’s Pearl Necklace (11:19)
- Hockey Sluts 4: Big Coaching (01:40)
not to mention the anomalous Big Black Bubble Mammaz, before navigating away from the site, seemingly without downloading or streaming any of the video files. Darren’s principal New Year’s Resolution was to stop watching online pornography. It would be uncharitable to conclude that this click-happy escapade meant the vow had already been broken within the first seven days of the year, mere hours after Epiphany, the Christian festival honouring a world-changing revelation of the kind to which Darren seldom bore witness. His resolve would not, however, make it to January 10th. This urge sated, Darren returned to the topic at hand: Connie Pendleton.
‘And I think the main reason I knew it wasn’t working was that kissing her had started to feel like turning off the light when I left the bathroom. Not something you do because you want to, or because it makes you happy, but because you’ve been told you ought to and you’d have a vague sense of guilt if you didn’t. Functional. Perfunctory. There’s nothing sexy about saving the environment, whatever Sting’s wife might think. 7 And can you think of anything more boring than tantric sex? Not that we had any, tantric or otherwise. Though if you can’t stop yourself, does it still count as tantric? Is it just a botched job? Or is the outcome more important than the mindset you go in with – so to speak?’
The following paragraph, which looks at tantric sex through the prism of literary intentionalism, is tangential and lacks coherence; it has therefore been omitted, but interested readers can of course find all additional content through the DigiLib system.
- This reference bears no relation to what we know of the life and character of the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was renowned for his devotion to teamwork. It is unclear if Darren was actually thinking of any other historical figure. ↩
- Photographic evidence indicates that Darren’s school-friend Andrew Musker did just this to him at a number of events lasting well into their early twenties. ↩
- Hovis and Elbow were, respectively, a large-scale bread manufacturer and a critically-respected independent rock band. Both were associated with a strong sense of Northern identity and a certain robust, salty sentimentalism. It has been suggested that Darren’s association of the two draws on an online review comparing the experience of listening to the group’s most recent album to ‘chewing your way through the thick end slice of a loaf of malted brown.’ ↩
- A 2003 best-selling novel by Dan Brown, notable for an engagement with the mysteries of art and theology that ran at least as deep as Darren’s own. ↩
- Let history be the judge. ↩
- One of the many amateur productions in which Darren participated at the open air theatre attached to Ashbrook Hall, an Elizabethan country mansion in Rutland. A programme, in which Darren is partially visible in the background of two crowd scenes, and in a single close-up shot lacing up the shoe of Bernadette Holmes (the actress playing Juliet Capulet) is on show in the exhibition. ↩
- All known footage and audio of the popular musical artist, Sting, has been lost or destroyed at the time of writing. ↩