Monday 17 October 2016


When I listen to Inuit throat-singing I think about the arrogance of the Eurocentric mind (which is still, it must be said, in these terrible times, itself bigger and yet humbler than the Anglocentric mind).

I listen to dogs and for all the variety of pleasant noises they can make I know science has measured and concluded dogs can make only 14 distinct vocal sounds.

I listen to the colloquy of cats and understand that science has concluded they can make ten times as many.

'How sophisticated!' I say. 'And by comparison how superior am I, who can make so many, many more!'

Then I watch throat-singing videos on YouTube, and feel ashamed to have wasted so much of the noise I could make on speaking - or, at best, shouting or whispering - only words.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

In Praise of Tough Girls and Beautiful Monsters

There are as many kinds of female beauty as there are of male attractiveness. This seems obvious, but like a lot of things which at first seem obvious it bears investigation. Men can have dad bods. Men can be attractive in spite of what they do. Men are allowed to age well. Men are allowed to be monsters.

Women are not accorded the same aesthetic dignity. Being a MILF is not the same as having a dad bod. The dad bod is in the possession of its owner; MILFery is in the eye of the (usually male) beholder. And as to aging well…

And being monsters?

I don’t mean murderers. I never had a thing for Myra Hindley. But I did have a thing for the tough girls at school, the girls who did what they wanted and weren’t afraid to fight and who, yes, sometimes beat me up. There is something attractive about female toughness, about women who don’t mind a scrap. A friend and I have been rewatching Ab Fab on Netflix, and we agree that one of the best things about Joanna Lumley’s Patsy is her willingness to turn to violence as a first resort. Ditto Bridget Everett’s Dagmar in Lady Dynamite, and Steven Universe’s Amethyst.

Anna Konda is a beautiful monster. In the photographs taken by Katarzyna Mazur for Dazed and Confused we see her standing, squatting, having her face wiped between bouts, and wrestling – shoving a smaller woman up against a wall, pushing against a woman’s thighs to stop her wrapping those thighs around Anna, getting her in what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and MMA fans call the guard.

The guard looks like a vulnerable position. You’re supine, and your opponent is above. But if you can get your legs around them, and your arms are free, you can control a lot. For one thing, if they’re on their knees – which is likely in this situation – wrapping your thighs around their midsection forces them to rely on their arms, much weaker than the legs. If you can tie their arms up as well, and if your thighs are sat just right on your opponent’s floating ribs…

Fans of the more brutal sports and spectacles invoke chess so often that it seems, at times, like special pleading, but looking at a still from a fight can evoke the same thoughts as the illustrated diagrams of disposed pieces in newspaper chess columns. We can (or like to kid ourselves we can) extrapolate the course of the fight from this one frozen moment. She has her in the guard, she has one arm locked up – her opponent can only attack with the free arm, but if she twists just so…The pleasure here is that of watching things play out. There are, of course, other kinds of pleasure at play too.

One reason for the popularity of scissor shots – the bodyscissors, with the thighs wrapped ‘round the torso, and their head variation, in which the thighs pressure the skull and the neck – is their similarity to the sexual act. We may as well admit this to begin with: but we ought perhaps to admit alongside it the fact that this resemblance can be found in many forms of ‘legitimate’ sport as well. The guard is a jiu-jitsu basic; boxers’ shining bodies clinch; track athletes race each other in what the rest of us call underwear. There is an erotic charge in watching bodies strive against each other, however they do so. In one of Mazur’s pictures, a wrestler leans over the body of her opponent, her hand almost caressing the prone woman’s face, lips close enough to whisper in her ear. The whole thing looks post-coital.

When some gallery-goers, shocked at what they saw as the obscenity of Francis Bacon’s 1954 work Two Figures in the Grass, appealed to a policeman to have it removed, the law officer replied ‘Why? It’s just two fellows wrestling in the grass.’ I like to imagine he smirked when he said that, challenging the prudes to provide an alternative interpretation. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Being Bacon, the subject is buggery, we’re tempted to say. But in fact, being Bacon, the subject is ambiguity – we see one body mount the other but are they fighting, fucking, fondling, fellating? We can’t know. Bacon liked to mix his sex with violence: watch Love is the Devil. He had his lovers beat him up, and loved to stand so close to the ring at boxing bouts that blood would stain his face. Bacon called love two people destroying each other. When asked to explain whether his paintings picture acts of sex or acts of violence one wonders, sometimes, if he’d be aware of the difference.

That there is a difference is something we must often assert. Excepting professional performers (themselves practitioners of a craft historically associated with sexual deviancy), for most of us, fighting and fucking represent the most intense times we will spend at close quarters with another human being: even the most prolific hugger must admit that a friendly squeeze of the shoulders lacks the intensity of pitched battle or animal rutting. But where to draw the line? Sex can be aggressive; when two technicians fight, the hold which makes one tap might be executed almost tenderly. Which act is violence?

In my novella Incidents of Trespass, there is a moment when the protagonist, Ruby Street, is raped by another woman. Her rapist orders Ruby to jerk off in front of her, and Ruby collaborates, but in order to do so she finds herself having to resort to her fantasies of a different order of intimate violence, imagining various tough women beating on her rapist. But Ruby’s fantasies of strife are masochistic: she identifies most with the victim, not the aggressor.  For her, this is perhaps the worst part of the ordeal: that she is forced to recruit her dreams of one kind of erotic violence in the service of another. Or, rather, in the service of a violence which is sexual but unerotic. Rape may involve the sexual organs but it isn’t making love. A rapist might punch you in the face, as Ruby’s does, but it isn’t a fight.

It’s not a fight, sure, but you can still lose.

Fights have referees. Even ‘catfighting’ videos, in which women tussle in their underwear in living rooms, supposedly privately, are watched over by a camera operator at the very least, who can stop things if they get too heated. Producers take pains to ensure their workers aren’t injured. Fights can be stopped. Referees in the bedroom might be one way of enforcing consent culture, but I suspect few would take such a modest proposal all that seriously (and anyway, refs can be bought). The ‘real fight’ videos that litter YouTube and Worldstar are far from private. For better or worse, there are bystanders. They might film. They might intervene. But they’re there.

By contrast, unless we’re orgiasts, when we wind up having sex with someone else we’re usually alone, except for them. Alone, and naked, with a person that we can’t be sure we trust. There’s a reason it took Judith to kill Holofernes: she could get close enough to do it. In the bedroom, no-one is on hand to remind participants to protect themselves at all times. Indeed, the opportunity to spend time with another without having to protect ourselves is part of the appeal. The risk, too.

Some of us take it further, that’s all. It’s not enough to know that we don’t have to keep our guard up: we like not being able to, knowing our partners will give us back that control when we ask. We enjoy feeling helpless safely. And that’s why we need them, the tough girls. The beautiful monsters. The women who could crush us, if they wanted to. They might not be conventionally pretty, but so what? They have what we want: big thighs. Musclefat. Take-no-shit expressions. Bodies confident in their ability to take on other bodies, and to best them. That beats pretty any day. 

The Gods are in a bad, bad way

Since he got dementia, Odin finds it hard to tell his ravens each from each. Huggin and Munnin, Memory and Thought. Which is which? What things does he remember, and what things are mere phantoms of his thoughts? Did he hang upon a cross to fathom knowledge even Gods weren’t meant to know, or was the cross a tree? Did he give an eye for wisdom, or lose it in a bar-room brawl? Does he ride a horse or spider? Are there elephants in Asgard? Have there always been? He really can’t be sure.

He feels like they won a great victory, some months ago. He tells the young. They laugh at him, they sneer, they wave front pages, point at phones. The pound is falling they tell Odin, Norway doesn’t want to know. We’re fucking fucked. In the old days he would have smote them for their insolence. But nowadays the thunderbolts recoil on him. He shakes. They shake their heads and move away. Perhaps one stays, to see he doesn’t bite his tongue. Perhaps an ambulance is called. Perhaps it will come quickly. But it’s Friday and most people just got paid and absent any plan for Ragnarok they’re getting pissed and fighting.

It’s a long wait, with the false god, for an ambulance.