Saturday, 25 February 2017



A different format this week. Why? Because the Editor's household has been blessed with the arrival of the new puppy, Lola, who has to be deterred from chewing the whole house down,  24/7, causing stress, frustration and cumulative sleep deficit.  Whose idea was this? Certainly not Roxie the Dog's, who has welcomed the newcomer with all the maternal warmth of Dr Mengele.

So, any attempts at original writing would be rapidly dispatched to the Facebook automatic translation service, only to emerge as something like Sanskrit with a Black Country inflection. If you haven't tried this facility, you should. It is not computer-generated as you might imagine, they simply send it to a commune of warmed-over hippies from the sixties with extensive neural damage from 50 years of dropping acid tabs on a daily basis: the product is colourful and imaginative  but more opaque than the original.

Why Heinz? Because this is post #57, a number indelibly associated with the H.J.Heinz company, their advertising boasting of the 57 varieties, (probably more like 57k now) in their portfolio of products.  Heinz 57 became a synonym for polyglot, and a mongrel dog of diverse but unknown parentage became 'a Heinz dog'. Unlike Lola, bred from Welsh border collies, in Suffolk

Why Heinz sex? Because it manifests itself in at least 57 varieties, and yet a year of The Items has scarcely ever mentioned sex, and it is improper that we have not tackled it head-on, as it were. It is after all the adolescent's holy grail, the tabloid's fixation and many people's favourite hobby.

So there you are: a patchwork quilt of recycled writing on human sexual behaviour that you may not wish your children or servants to read.

To begin with, a piece from Facebook written before President Trump terrified the children of the world by threatening to grab their kittens.....

PUSSY GALORE (Fleming, 1959.’Goldfinger’)
When Robin Catto and I go to Tottenham we no longer take my car. Although it was very enjoyable to have the roof down and beam smugly at the young lads who glared at us, just as I used to, a middle-aged man and an elderly man, driving a ‘sports car’.

It was difficult for Robin who would grind his teeth in frustration as I crept along at 15 mph, hunched over the clutched steering wheel, as befits a Senior driver, then searching for a parking space the size of a tourist coach to allow for my arthritic, neck-twisting, parallel parking problem.

Then everything changed: he inherited a Smart. Now he can indulge his inner Boy Racer, while I can sit there calculating the fuel consumption of the journey there and back, invariably between one and two teaspoonfuls of petrol. We are so Green we would need no camouflage paint in wartime. The real payoff is in parking: we usually find a big enough space immediately. When pushed, and there is no alternative, the extraordinary little car can be parked in the aperture of a nearby pillar box.
Anyway (I can’t remember what Ronnie Corbett actual used to say at each twist in his anecdotes, but it’ll do), anyway, last time I was extolling to him the virtues of listening to Radio 4 while decorating (music is nice but it doesn’t arrest the attention or distract from the dreadful dazzling monotony of the task) and explaining how much sheer content you received, how many interesting items of information you took in, previously unknown. I did slightly undermine my argument, by my inability to recall any specifics. But today I learned (from Women and Girlie Men’s Hour a.k.a. Woman’s Hour) some fascinating stuff about eating disorders, and men’s in particular. More to the point, and, hence the title of this piece, courtesy of their serialising Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’, I heard the first use of the word ‘pussy’ on the BBC that I’m aware of, in a non-feline context. I nearly fell off my ladder.

If you can hear a whirring noise in the distance it is probably the sound of Lord Reith and Auntie BBC spinning in their respective graves, each like some demented Doner Kebab machine with a malfunctioning motor.
                                         Disgusted, Willesden.

And now, what we might coyly call 'selfie-sex': masturbation.  It's not that it gets a bad press, it gets no press at all, and is rarely mentioned in conversation, and then only by euphemism. 
Young readers and people of a prudish disposition may prefer not to read this section. Having read it, my younger daughter has not yet decided whether to expunge my surname from hers or simply treat me with the contempt I deserve (no change there, then). But if it's acceptable in the Bible ('and he did scatter his seed on stony ground') then it should be OK anywhere.

Someone once said that masturbation is preferable to sexual intercourse because you meet a nicer class of people.  Mention of it is effectively verboten in most contexts, an illogical and unjust 'law' which should be broken. It is mired in in a dangerous mythology (it makes you deaf/blind/mad/grow hairs on the back of your hand) euphemism (see title) and slang (wank, toss etc).

So there is a tacit embargo on reference to masturbation in our culture; even in jokes it receives less airtime than most kinds of sexual behaviour, despite the fact that it is fairly harmless (except where, through an unfortunate choice of location, it becomes potentially dangerous to passers-by). This veto is strange because most adults will have done it at one time or another - though with great variation in frequency (from 'once in a blue moon' to ' every morning during Thought for the Day while my spouse is downstairs making the tea').

 I suppose it is because of shame. The culture has instilled in us that it is a shameful thing, and dictionaries often define it as 'self-abuse'. As a young teenager, ignorant and confused, I spent many hours hurling insults at myself in the mirror, to no effect. Clearly there is a need for sex education to cover this, but teachers have told me that it is precisely this aspect that they dread the most, even more than describing full penetrative sex, and often omit. Curious. I wonder if this is because it is something the kids can actually visualise them doing, whereas full sex requires them to see the teacher as attractive to someone, akin to trying to see Michael Gove as Johnny Depp. 

Having spent a lot of time in schools doing research or supervising students I soon learned how to identify which teacher in the staff room was doing sex education after morning break. S/he was the one whose daily Hobnob was left untouched, had eschewed Nescafé Gold for a quarter bottle of Tesco Value Brandy and who froze when the bell went, then left the room with the stiff, short steps of a suicide bomber on a long fuse.

I salute Philip Roth for his brave breaching of the embargo in Portnoy's Complaint (in which masturbation is the hero's whole raison d'ĂȘtre) which brought him considerable wealth and fame but years of vituperation from the elders of the Jewish community for bringing disgrace to the race. It is an extraordinarily observant and funny book, with the proviso that you will probably never feel quite the same about liver and jam jars again. Work it out. One distinguished reviewer wrote: "I would like to congratulate Mr Roth on his achievement, but I don't intend to shake his hand"
Living in London, albeit in a middle class area, there was an understanding of Cockney rhyming slang, even if its use sounded like poor pronunciation of a foreign language: unnatural and stilted. There can be no better example of the organic nature of language than the evolution of the verb 'to wank'. In the 1950s, the expression was 'to have a J.Arthur, (as in J.Arthur Rank, the film distributors, whose 'man with the gong' preceded virtually every feature film in the cinema). However, by the late 60s, Harold Wilson's 'white heat of the technological revolution' had forged another term: 'having a Joddrell', from Joddrell Bank where the massive radio telescope was sited.

I'm sure there were many more intervening ones but I'm guessing that the Banking crisis of 2008 must have been the most fertile ground for new rhyming slang. Though it doesn't rhyme, 'having an RBS' has an uncanny goodness of fit, combining abuse of self and others with a river of shame.

As schoolboys we smirked and tittered our way through books, nudging each other at any words that were ank-related. We delighted in the crucifixion of young, gullible, often female teachers with the nails these words provided. "Please Miss, can you recommend any particular kind of bank?" Watch the colour drain from her face as she realises she has to provide an answer which does not acknowledge the real thrust of the question NOR provide any further basis for innuendo that will set off barely-suppressed hysteria amongst the class. They were never so bright-eyed and bushy tailed again, and were probably destined to become one of the hardened harridans who chain-smoked their way through every break in the school day and were on first-name terms with the family who ran the offie. Job done.

Perhaps the worst atrocity we visited upon a teacher we saved for the most vulnerable. As I have argued before, this kind of cruel, unusual and vindictive behaviour is essentially what young boys are for. The RE master, 'Holy Joe' McDonald, was a mild and ineffectual man who probably lived with his mother even though she didn't need looking after, and possibly didn’t even like the unctuous little man herself. He had a distracted air, as though he were in permanent silent conversation with God, only he was straining to hear Him because of all the noise of the Real World, like a bad telephone line. At an agreed time GS got up and said "Please sir, could we have a mass debate, boys against the girls?" He reddened and left the room, which was surprising as it was a well-worn pun, and he should have learned how to deal with it by then.

I don't think it was that incident which caused him to leave the school at the end of the term; nor the inflated condom full of water that somebody left on his chair for him to sit on; nor even the copies of Men Only we put in his briefcase, for him or his mother to find. No, I think it was probably when they chocked up his Morris Minor on four piles of bricks, removed the wheels and rolled them all the way down the school field to the rough area ('The Wilderness') where it really wasn't very easy to find them.

Lord of the Flies? Amateurs and lightweights.

A CLARIFICATION (from Facebook, the next day)
This is a partial apology to anyone who was offended by yesterday's post on onanism. Partial because no-one had to read it, and it carried a prominent 'health warning'. It was simply an attempt to throw some light on a concealed area of our culture and behaviour, to 'normalise' it. Because it is normal: the studies show that up to 92% of women and 61% of men ADMIT to doing it, almost certainly an underestimate due to self-consciousness and guilt about the admission, but hardly a minority group in any case. I hoped that by discussing it light-heartedly it would be possible to re-create the atmosphere around it that my friends and I experienced in our early teens where our pre-occupation with sex was acted out in the kind of teacher-pranking that I described. That's why it has a place in my autoblography. This is not a crusade but I do think that any of you who have teenage children may stumble across this behaviour by accident, and perhaps the embarrassment of all concerned might be vitiated by a bit more open, non-judgemental illumination of this shadowy area. Of course I'm not the best person to lead this discussion as I've never actually done 'it' and I'm perfectly sure you haven't either...

Finally, also from FESS, an account of one episode of the very best kind of sex:  beautiful, romantic,  climactically successful, but unconsummated sex, indelible in the mind and never tainted by reality:

"I spent Christmas 1992 in Paris just because  I could. The appeal of spending the time exactly the way I had spent the previous 45 Christmases had lost some of its glister, and my friend Brigitte had offered me her flat in Le Marais, quite near the Pompidou. I used the Centre as my base for operations, foraying out to restaurants and galleries from time to time, but also as my comfortable sitting room where anyone might pass by and join me at my table, and if I looked at people and smiled at them they sometimes did. Several very pleasant hours were spent with the an opera director and his son, helping to fill the yawning vacuum that exists when a father first has access to his child after divorce, and everything is raw and achey, like a bad tooth. He was nowhere near as grand as his job description suggested. We had one of those brief international relationships which are so satisfying because, in quite a sentimental way, they evoke feelings of commonality, and the triumph of similarity over difference; together we confirmed to each other how we had struggled to handle all the curved balls Life had chucked our way.

I was tired after three or four hours of talk, but left the Pompidou, and rather than turn left towards the apartment I headed towards Notre Dame, a natural focus at Christmas. It was beautifully illuminated and there were fireworks nearby. I moved into the throng of people, stopping as it got too dense. After a while I started to look around me, and caught a woman looking at me, I guessed, for she looked away sharply as my glance reached her. I carried on looking, and sure enough she slowly turned her head to look back towards me: as far as you can tell at 10pm, I thought she blushed. She certainly smiled, with a very broad smile, created by a wide mouth, bright red lips and bright white teeth that must surely be catching the light of the fireworks, they shone so much. I made my way over to her thinking ‘David, you don’t do this sort of thing, in fact you haven’t got the first fucking clue what to say’.  It didn’t matter.
“Hi, I’m Pia, I’m speaking English because I think you are English – hoping you are English”
“I’m David - and I’m delighted to be English if that’s what you’re hoping for, but why? I’m here because I’m trying to get away from the English for a few days”
“I like English people, and Englishmen are nice, and respect women, and I’m sick of Frenchmen who are arrogant pigs, and also, as it happens they tend to smell quite bad, n’est-ce pas?”
“I don’t know, to be honest I haven’t been that intimate with any Frenchmen to know. But I’ll take your word for it and cross ‘sniffing Frenchmen’ off my to-do list”
“There you see you have the English sense of ‘umour, very dry, very subtle. French they can’t even find the time to be funny – too busy looking at themselves in mirrors!”
“You mean once they’ve elbowed the Italians out of the way”
“Naturellement, I mean of course”
“How come your English is so good?”
“English exchange when I was at school. I spent two weeks in Croydon – which was, what you say, ‘the pits’, so I ran away and went to Wales and to Edinburgh, sleeping rough and the occasional B&B to wash clothes and clean up. I was all over the papers”
“So you’re a baad girl….Am I in danger here?”
“Not if you do exactly what I say. Ha”
“So long as it doesn’t involve losing body parts”
“No, your body is safe with me”. Huge wink, smile somehow finds an extra inch of span.
“Do you usually go out on Christmas Night, picking up strange men?”
“No, it is the first time for me, and I think for you. So we are Christmas-Night-pickup-virgins, yes?”
“Yes, and it’s a description I’ve long aspired to”.
“You’re funny”
“You’re funny and gorgeous”
“You’re funny and married, I think   - it doesn’t matter, I am too”
“Actually no, I’m practically divorced, but if you’re married, it comes to the same thing”
“Let’s walk. Very soon I’m going to kiss you, and I’ve seen friends in the crowd who would love to gossip”
We walked and talked: she was a designer – evident from her oddly stylish clothes, and a touch of swagger, but in a cool way. Her husband was an unemployed musician, somewhat depressive, and she supported them both. She slid into a doorway and with no preamble delivered to me the longest, sweetest, softest, most tender kiss I’d ever had, broke away a fraction, smiled almost beyond the point of elasticity, and kissed me harder, with passion.
“I have to go. I could make up an excuse and stay with you and that would be wonderful, I know it, just from the quality of touch we have, but then there would be the disaster: I am a terrible actress and liar and he would guess immediately. So now you can be sure that I have meant everything I have said and done with you because I can’t fake it. There’s been bliss in the air tonight but it will turn to blood if he finds out: he says he will kill himself if I ever leave him, and I sometimes think he just wants an excuse. Let’s exchange addresses in case anything changes, love each other just as much as we have and not let it become something else, full of tragedy and tears”. A last kiss and she was gone. I expected a full orchestra and the credits to roll. Things like this don’t happen to me.

We wrote for a while and ran a gauntlet of danger every time. It faded, as these things do, but that never affected the feeling that there was indeed bliss in the air that evening, and in the future, if we’d had the courage and seized the time. In fact Pia, if you ever get to read this…..