BOOKS FROM THE TOP SHELF V: READING ‘FANNY HILL’ ON THE TUBE

(Originally posted on Exetera)

Detail from ‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ by Bronzino, c.1545

A beautiful virgin, new to the idea of sex, is led secretively into a wardrobe by a highly seductive girl a few years her senior. In the wall is a peep-hole, through which the pair watch a prostitute named Polly enjoying ferocious sex with a well-endowed, muscular Italian man. Excited by what they see, the two girls begin to masturbate – first themselves, and then each other.

Does this sound like the beginning of an atrocious 1970s porn film? I wouldn’t know, of course, never having used the internet for anything but writing careful, inoffensive prose and reading about the healing power of God.  As a lascivious plebeian, however, you’re probably familiar with this sort of debauchery. But get this: it’s a summary of a scene from the 1748 novel Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by all-round rebel John Cleland, an Englishman who flunked his education, lived in constant financial debt and was eventually imprisoned because of the novel’s extreme sexual explicitness, which was blamed for “corrupting the King’s subjects”, many of whom read it while it was circulated in secret.

Fanny Hill tells the story of a country girl who finds herself thrown into the sexual world when the death of her parents forces her to relocate to seedy 18th century London. Cleland’s rich prose puts unimaginative smut such as 50 Shades of Grey to shame. The novel’s world is one of ‘fleshy orbs’, ‘hard, firm, rising hillocks’, ‘plenteous effusion[s] of white liquid’, and ‘the sweet seat of the most exquisite sensation’. It even contains its fair share of BDSM (take that, E.L. James).

I read Fanny Hill in preparation to study it in the colourfully titled English class ‘Prostitutes, Pornographers and Inverts: Sex in the Long Nineteenth Century’. I made the flawed decision to read it on my daily commute, which really helped me perfect the art of hiding reading material from curious tube passengers. The skill of it is holding the book vertically in front of your face, so that onlookers can see the front cover of the novel (presumably admiring your capacity to read a Penguin Classic at 8.30 in the morning) but can’t catch a glimpse of the pages inside it, which are held so close to your face that your nose is almost stroking them. You’ll avoid embarrassment as long as they don’t find out you’re lingering on a sentence describing ‘the stiff intersertion between the yielding divided lips of the wound now open for life’.

Awkward public transport aside, Fanny Hill is a novel well worth reading. It helped to dispel my inaccurate misconceptions about the supposed prudishness of centuries gone by, entertaining and strangely seducing me in the process. It’s sex scenes are relentless, but never boring, and what was once seen as nothing but pornography has, through time, become something beautiful and worthy of the literary canon, if only for how alien its language appears by today’s standards. Fortunately, you no longer need to be privy to the secrets of Cleland’s literary circle to get hold of a copy. You’ll find Fanny Hill in your local bookshop, clothed modestly in the standard Penguin Classics cover – although what you’ll find inside is anything but modest.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM (Exetera Magazine)

Truman Capote werrrking

Read the original post here

“I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.” 

– Evelyn Waugh, ‘Scoop’

When we (or at least I) think of journalism in the former half of the twentieth century, it’s all marble floors and stiff black coffees in lofty New York high-rises. It’s brassy young writers tapping furiously on their typewriters in a cloud of cigarette smoke and cologne, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from their brow with an impeccably tailored jacket sleeve. “I’ve got it!” they shout, stubbing out that cigarette and tearing the final page of a story from their typewriter. “This one’s really gonna shake ’em up.”

Okay, so that’s probably a fantasy exclusive to myself, and it’s easy to ignore the undercurrent of misogyny and racism which was a symptom of the entire era – easily discernible in the Capote excerpt included in a couple of paragraphs’ time – but there’s still a literary elegance in earlier journalism which is easy to miss today, when quoting a single sentence from the Mail Online that will probably require several insertions of ‘[sic]’. An article about Girls Aloud singer Nadine Coyle, for example, enjoyed the following errors:

Sarah and Kimberly ventured into acting, with the later starring as Princess Fiona on the West End production of Shrek.

[…]

Nadine’s has been keeping a low profile in the U.S. since her debut album bombed.

Journalism wasn’t always about celebrity weight-loss, Kardashian break-ups and Shrek. There was a time when the ‘little grit of fact’ around which an entire article is based could never be Emma Watson saying that her next movie ‘will not be Fifty Shades of Grey.’ There was a time when Vogue mixed fashion photography with academic articles by writers such as Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone, and Truman Capote, the man who brought us Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and, indirectly, that nasty mass-produced Audrey Hepburn canvas which adorns tween bedroom walls the world over), interviewed Marlon Brando for The New Yorker:

‘My guide tapped at Brando’s door, shrieked “Marron!,” and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet. The door was opened by another doll-delicate Miyako maid, who at once succumbed to her own fit of quaint hysteria. From an inner room, Brando called, “What is it, honey?” But the girl, her eyes squeezed shut with mirth and her fat little hands jammed into her mouth, like a bawling baby’s, was incapable of reply. “Hey, honey, what is it?” Brando again inquired, and appeared in the doorway. “Oh, hi,” he said when he saw me. “It’s seven, huh?” We’d made a seven-o’clock date for dinner; I was nearly twenty minutes late. “Well, take off your shoes and come on in. I’m just finishing up here. And, hey, honey,” he told the maid, “bring us some ice.” Then, looking after the girl as she scurried off, he cocked his hands on his hips and, grinning, declared, “They kill me. They really kill me. The kids, too. Don’t you think they’re wonderful, don’t you love them—Japanese kids?”‘

In the early 1930s Virginia Woolf wrote a series of essays, collectively titled London Scenes, for Good Housekeeping magazine (a publication whose recent cover stars have included Gwenyth Paltrow in a mauve turtleneck and a grinning Julie Walters beside the headline ‘Financially fabulous at every age’). On the subject of the filthy banks of the Thames, Woolf wrote:

‘Barges heaped with old buckets, razor blades, fish tails, newspapers and ashes-whatever we leave on our plates and throw into our dust bins-are discharging their cargoes upon the most desolate land in the world. The long mounds have been fuming and smoking and harbouring innumerable rats and growing a rank coarse grass and giving off a gritty, acrid air for fifty years. The dumps get higher and higher, and thicker and thicker, their sides more precipitous with tin cans, their pinnacles more angular with ashes year by year.’

As brilliant as this stuff is, there’s always a problem with gilding any past era as a ‘golden age’. Every generation in the history of the Western world has done it, thinking that they’re the first. Perhaps it provides us with the comforting belief that life was once better, and the hope that it might be again, someday. Even Homer’s epics were set a thousand or two years before his lifetime, nostalgic for a time when rape and murder were social norms and a host of bisexual deities rushed down from the heavens to give us a hand at warfare. Needless to say, he based everything on reliable factual research – just like all those Daily Mail articles about cancer causes.

Nicole Kidman as Woolf in The Hours, with a prosthetic nose which should have won best supporting actress (or not, because she looked suspiciously like a stretched out Dobby the house elf)

In light of all this, I’m now going to completely disprove everything which I’ve written so far – probably a symptom of my lazy 21st century journalistic skills, or lack thereof.

Firstly, there’s always been a thirst for the gritty details of public figures’ private lives. Celebrity culture rose from the ashes of high society culture, in which debutante balls, socialite weddings and party outfits were top news. The entertainment news of today is similar material, but the rise of television, the internet and instant communication has spawned a new generation of public figures; the socialites have become the celebrities.

And, amongst the splurge of inane paparazzi shots and rapper feuds which make the headlines, there’s still great journalism being published. Take Exetera, for example, a magazine of uncompromising quality and ambitious scope, changing the face of the creative and intellectual world one page at a… just kidding. But you need only skim the pages of the more respected magazines and newspapers to see, nestled between paraphrased press releases and photoshop-skinny models, big names with big ideas. To mention just a few examples, Pop magazine recently published an interview by art critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, the New York Times published a sports piece by David Foster Wallace in 2006, and McSweeney’s magazine brings us a satirical monologue by novelist Teddy Wayne, ‘I’m an English Professor in a Movie’:

‘Good morning, and welcome to Advanced English Literature—I’m Professor Anglosoundingname. As you can see, I have a mane of silver hair and wear a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches stitched with corduroy threads that have their own leather thread-patches, and pace briskly into this lecture hall from the New England autumn just as class starts.

I’m waiting sternly as the laggards straggle in like Leopold Bloom wearily climbing into his bed in the “Penelope” episode ofUlysses… yes, I expected you all to laugh at that impromptu erudite quip, with the exception of one newcomer, that Midwestern freshman in the middle row looking around anxiously with her neatly arranged panoply of multicolored pens, wondering if she’s out of her depth because she can’t understand an offhand literary joke at this elite institution which is, once again, in New England—take a quick, establishing gander at the outside foliage.’

When faced with writing like this, it’s hard to believe that the golden age ever really ended. Sure, there’s a lot more rushed, grammatically-flawed hack journalism to sift through – and if we’re to tie the various strands of this article together into a satisfying conclusion, we might compare it to the acrid detritus of Woolf’s Thames – but there’s also plenty of quality writing which can easily go unnoticed. The golden age is a permanent fixture; it’s happening right under our noses (and now I’m going to really blow your mind by looping all the way back to that opening quotation from Evelyn Waugh), but you need to open a lot of oysters before you can find a pearl.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM

“I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.” 

– Evelyn Waugh, ‘Scoop’

When we (or at least I) think of journalism in the former half of the twentieth century, it’s all marble floors and stiff black coffees in lofty New York high-rises. It’s brassy young writers tapping furiously on their typewriters in a cloud of cigarette smoke and cologne, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from their brow with an impeccably tailored jacket sleeve. “I’ve got it!” they shout, stubbing out that cigarette and tearing the final page of a story from their typewriter. “This one’s really gonna shake ‘em up.”

Okay, so that’s probably a fantasy exclusive to myself, and it’s easy to ignore the undercurrent of misogyny and racism which was a symptom of the entire era – easily discernible in the Capote excerpt included in a couple of paragraphs’ time – but there’s still a literary elegance in earlier journalism which is easy to miss today, when quoting a single sentence from the Mail Online that will probably require several insertions of ‘[sic]‘.

[READ MORE AT EXETERA MAGAZINE]

LET’S WRITE A POEM

Auden smoking. Duh.

Poetry.

I enjoy reading it, I appreciate it when I do, and I have a few tomes of it squeezed into my bookshelf. But still, I’m not really sure if I understand it how I’m supposed to.

I’m studying a creative writing module at university, and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done (clearly, my life is terribly exciting), and when it comes to writing prose everything goes smoothly. I also have to write poetry, though, and that’s where I get a little confused. In my doomed attempts at it, I submitted a ten-stanza free verse poem about abortion, with such glittering phrases as ‘a blurred face in the crook of a coat hanger’, ‘a dark that spreads, fine-fingered’, and ‘a frayed, suspended moment’; all of which are designed to trick you into believing that you’re reading some kind of poetry. Deep, man. In reality, however, I have no idea what I’m doing. If it all goes to plan I might have one or two of you fooled (and hopefully my professors, too).

If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that I’ll probably never be a poet, whatever that entails. I mean, when even Google can write poems, where does that leave us?

Maybe I’ll abandon my literary/journalistic dreams in favour of Craigslist prostitution or self-publishing an ebook about misogynistic kink. Who knows what the future holds.

Right now I should be making a start on another 75 lines of poetry for an exam, but it seems much more exciting to construct verse out of things from my twitter feed. Sources include my close friends Vogue, very.co.uk (which I can assure you is the result of a retweet and not a follow), Vice, StyleCaster,  and, of course, Busy Phillips.

BEST BET

AnOther (structured) Monday,
A crazy early morning.
How to make hair look gorgeous.
5 Pregnancy Pointers.
15 Fashionable Duffle Bags For Weekend Getaways.
Is it time for a wardrobe update?
This shoulder bag from Joanna Maxham will go with everything.
Next stop is MAN,
Pure, raw and minimal.
My dream goal is to raise my children here.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
Indonesian women have been banned from straddling motorbikes.
How do you rank a racehorse?
Bacon.

— by Twitter

ALAN HOLLINGHURST IS FOR LIFE, NOT JUST THE 2004 MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Before this year, I was suspicious of new books; probably because I always judge a book by its cover, and generic classics are more or less the only ones I feel I can trust (not forgetting Faber’s totally strokable poetry collection). So, I only ever read the tried and tested greats, imagining myself to be some sort of supercool literary elitist. I guess this was a result of ignorance, my knowledge of contemporary writing only spanning the Stephanie Meyer / E.L. James type until recently, aka the kind of books that could be written by throwing marbles at a keyboard and base their front covers on stock images. It turns out I was just being a massive prick, and there are amazing books being published all the time. Who would have known!!

Right now I’m irredeemably obsessed with the novels of Alan Hollinghurst (which form a tiny fraction of the 84 newly-bought books piled up in the corner of my room, the products of my spending addiction) and I waste a whole lot of time listening to his posh academic voice talking about his books in every interview that he’s had recorded ever. He begins ‘homosexual’ with a ‘homm’ rather than a ‘home’. That’s just makes him even better.

From what I’ve read so far, (The Folding Star, The Line of Beauty and 2011’s The Stranger’s Child), The Line of Beauty is by far the most impressive, so it’s not surprise that it won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. I would tell you all about it, but I’d risk sounding like a sub-par critic, and you deserve to read it yourself. All you need to know is that it’s completely enthralling and multi-faceted and it helped me to realise that there are new books which really are going to endure. Ok, cringey love letter to Hollingurst over. Enjoy an unrelated photograph of some university accommodation.

Photo by Molly Chase

And now for a nicely pretentious passage of fiction I wrote for my creative writing course, but which I shouldn’t really hand in for assessment because it’s a shameless imitation of his style. It’s got everything a good Hollinghurst needs: a posh girl who says darrrrling, a creepy gay protagonist, slightly archaic language and some narrative ambiguity thrown in for good measure. Also, forgive me for the italicised words looking like they’re walking through a hurricane. I can’t change the type-face on this theme. Woe is me — oh, the pain of spending all your money in bookshops (because Amazon doesn’t give you the same comforting retail experience) and not being able to purchase a premium blog layout. I may single-handedly be keeping Waterstones afloat through the recession. Do I deserve an award for that?

I met Ally at the station later in the afternoon. I spied her from behind, grappling with unnecessarily heavy bags in the rushed crowd that had been on her train. She gave a nervous shudder when I tapped her on the shoulder, but when she swivelled and realised who I was the fear evaporated and she dropped her luggage in favour of a tight hug. After we’d exchanged excited greetings she seized my biceps and stepped back to survey me.
‘You’ve got so thin!’
‘Ally, you flatterer.’
‘But you have! Look, your jeans are practically falling off those bony hips, darling. We must get you some new clothes while I’m here.’
She smiled and reached up to tap my head. ‘I hope everything’s well up there.’
We spent the evening cooking steak with a rich, dark sauce and steamed carrots, a recipe which Ally claimed to discover in a dusty foreign cookery book she’d salvaged from the family attic. I’d learnt to take such stories lightly, though. She’d always had a habit of gilding the more quotidian details of her life with careful fragments of narrative; ones that matched the image she hoped to portray.
After eating, we opened my bedroom’s wide sash window and hung out of it to smoke. It had been a while since I’d had a cigarette, so at first I found my face contorting with surprise at the scratchy tar’s presence in my throat, but soon it was a source of gentle, leg-heavying calm. We’d shared a bottle of merlot over dinner, enveloping us in a slow cloud of intoxication which eased conversation into more personal realms. Ally narrowed her eyes at me and grinned. ‘God, it’s been ages.
‘I know! It’s unforgivable, Ally.’ I stubbed out a cigarette on the windowsill and fumbled for another. ‘By the way, Cara mentioned something about a man on your end.’
‘Oh god, that’ll be Peter. Don’t listen to Cara, she doesn’t know what happened; no one really does. It was just – it was nothing. I fell for a guy and he didn’t fall back. Textbook stuff, Matt, textbook. How about you? Love life?’
‘Non-existent.’
She leant forward as if she was about to tell me a secret in a crowded room and whispered, ‘I don’t believe that for a second, Matthew Goodwill.’
I tilted my head back and exhaled a stream of pale smoke, probably laughing more than the situation warranted. ‘Well, there was one guy, just a one night thing.’
She glared at the promise of a good story.
‘Tell me more!’
‘It was just a friend of a friend, and we were so drunk that it wasn’t really worth it.’
Ally dropped her cigarette out of the window and we watched its descent to the pavement, where it punctuated the darkness with its fierce little orange glow.
‘I still feel a bit odd about, you know, the whole gay thing.’
‘Oh Matthew! You need to get over this stuff. You’re brilliant!’
I realised that the wine and cigarettes had had a heavier influence on me than I’d thought.
‘I know you don’t want to be that guy, you know, the effeminate one with the Judy Garland obsession and the – I don’t know – the limp wrist, but you’re not! And fuck it, so what if you were.’
I smiled and squeezed her shoulder for a moment, at which she shrugged and let out an irritated sigh. I felt my vision beginning to fuzz.
‘Besides, what could possibly be more masculine than men loving men?’
I think I laughed at that, but the memory is unclear, as if it were obscured by the electric snowstorm which seizes the television screen during moments of interruption. I could feel the stars begin to slide, the mirrors shifting, Ally dropping away limb by limb, her disembodied shout lingering for a dizzy moment like a long, blue shadow.

*

Then she was over me, spraying my face with water from a plastic bottle which my mother used to water flowers.
‘Holy shit, Matthew! You nearly fell out the fucking window!’
I tried to keep my eyes open as she hooked her arms under my elbows and hauled me off the floor.
‘What the fuck did you take?’
I ebbed in and out of consciousness for the next few hours, tumbling vicariously through my own fragmented memories and dreams. When I finally awoke for good it was daylight and Ally was perched on the windowsill again, sucking agitatedly on a cigarette. She tossed it and flew to my bedside when she noticed me stirring. I still felt the residue of some terrible paralysis fizzing through my body, but the worst of it was over. She fussily persuaded me to take some awkward sips of water, but it tasted odd and somehow dry.
‘Matt, I don’t understand what happened.’
I furrowed my head deeper into the pillow. ‘It’s just allergies, that’s all. I shouldn’t have eaten those carrots, and I shouldn’t really drink either.’
‘Well, shit. Cheers for the heads up, darling.’
‘Sorry, Al. I’m an idiot, don’t be annoyed.’ I lifted myself up to lean against the headboard. ‘And don’t bother my parents with any of this; I’ll be absolutely recovered in a couple of hours.’

 

GEE

I’ve recently moved into my new house for my second year at university, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading and not enough blogging, hence the shameful lack of posts (which I’m reminded of every time I check my page and see ‘September 2012 (1)’ staring me in the face). It’s unforgivable, really, so I thought I’d share something which I’ve been writing as a separate project. In a fit of inspiration I started writing a load of fragmented paragraphs about a character called Gee, who’s a lesbian fashion editor for a high end magazine. Don’t ask. Still, I’ve collated some of these fragments into something vaguely coherent. I may have overdosed on Virginia Woolf and come up with something completely derivative and pretentious which could do with about 90% less adjectives and 100% more imagination, but #yolo – here it is! Obviously I’ve prefixed it with an irrelevant Nan Goldin photograph, because I’m an idiot. One more thing: I’m totally hopeless at using semi-colons properly. I tend to panic about there being a lot of commas and throw some in for good measure, so correct me if I’m wrong.

A bit of background knowledge – Gee wrote a novel which was never published. A publisher called Benjamin Lefstein (I literally don’t know why I called him that) said that it was ‘a pretentious effort, but an effort nonetheless. Still, not for us’.

Gee recalled the first months of her romance with Anna. It was a time of rapid change, when everything suddenly seemed to fizz with promise and intoxicating beauty that filled her like deeply inhaled cigarette smoke. They spent one pretentious summer during their early twenties looking after a friend’s vast house in Surrey, reading queer theory and having long, loungey sex, fancying themselves two spider-limbed Edie Sedgwicks in the smog of incense and blue cannabis smoke with which they filled the house. It had been a heat-wave summer, and the air was abuzz with the chatter and splash of children playing by the river mole and the hum of beach-bound traffic loaded with surfboards, sun-cream and excitement. Anna and Gee relished the privacy of their situation, encountering nobody but the jumpy cashier at the nearby off license and indulgently sharing in the common ache of homosexual experience – and the delicious notion that it was them against the world. Anna was Gee’s first love, and in her company life began to grow with the puberty of experience; the burgeoning curves of breasts and hips, flushing with new colour and vitality, with glittering melancholy, red-eyed lust, voluptuous love and irresistible corruption. Perhaps it was the drugs, but they felt so spiritually about the experience that relaying its details to friends tipped it immediately into the realms of the ridiculous. It was best stored in the enchanted vaults of memory.

It was hard to recall exactly what those heady days felt like now, confronted with the white sensibility of their cosmopolitan Kensington apartment; with the froth of ivory gladioli languishing on long stems by the window, the neatly hung African relics and the unnecessary array of copper pans arranged above the oven, all set to a grand Wagner aria played quietly in the background as if it were a song about paperclips.

She had just got in from work, and Anna was already busying herself with dinner in a cloud of hot steam and stinging shallot fumes. She looked up optimistically at Gee.

‘I bought lobsters, look! I splashed out!’

Gee shrugged off her black coat and threw her bags on the worktop, dangerously close to a pair of pitifully twitching lobsters, their huge claws bound with blue elastic.

‘Gorgeous.’

‘You left the doors open again.’

Anna was tipping a chopping board of impossibly fine shallot pieces into a pan of crackling butter. She was doing everything in the wrong order. The sauce would be cold by the time the lobster was ready. All that money for ruined lobster thermidor.

‘Gee, you left the back doors unlocked again. Anybody could have climbed into the garden and got in.’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I forget. I always forget something.’

She looked over to the wide concertina doors that took up most of the kitchen’s far wall. They were open now.

‘They’re open now. There’ll be moths.’

‘It’s okay,darling, you can close them. It just gets a bit hot when I’m cooking, that’s all.’

She sucked her fingers one by one. Gee said it was no bother, and attempted a quip about the moths’ taste for her Chanel. Impeccable taste, had those moths. Anna laughed as she always did and Gee embraced her from behind, kissing the slender nape of her neck, beaded with a familiar sweat. She was doting lover, reliable partner, always-there Gee. She tightened her grip around her partner’s waist and leant her cheek against her back, feeling the terrible jolt as Anna plunged a knife into the brittle armour of the lobsters’ heads. Tears began to pool in her eyes, and she imagined it was just the bite of the steam and the shallots.

‘I love you, Anna.’

A pretentious effort, but an effort nonetheless.

‘I love you too, baby. How about a glass of merlot?’