Archive for January, 2006

Blow jobs: the conclusion

Monday, January 16th, 2006

UPDATE: we can all argue this with even greater authority now that the article has appeared online

David Weman said in comments that he was sure the article was silly because Matt Yglesias had said so. Here is actual conclusion that Yglesias thought “Wrong and also almost silly”. I wouldn’t describe it as any form of silly. Whether it’s wrong or not rather depends on how American teenagers are actually behaving these days, which Flanagan makes clear that no one knows and Flanagan cites one reputable study suggesting that half of all 17-year-olds and a quarter of all 15-year-olds have been doing the bonobo.

The modern girl’s casual willingness to perform oral sex may—as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose—be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality—the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself—private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening—which is all she really has left to protect anymore.

We’ve made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood’s response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy—which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America’s girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America’s girls: on their knees.

But I can’t see how anyone could dismisss that last paragraph so fliply — any parent, at least.

Sic transit, without recycling

Monday, January 16th, 2006

Here is a well told story that is greatly to the credit of Country Joe MacDonald, a man I would admire even if he didn’t name his band after such interesting creatures.

Blow jobs and doom

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

There is an extraordinary and very thought-provoking piece in1 the Atlantic magazine this month about the sexual habits of American teenage girls. It seems to be widely reported, and may even be true, that they offer blowjobs as we used to offer cigarettes — a non-commital gesture of recognition within the peer group. What makes the piece worthwhile, though, is the way that Caitlin Flanagan sees this as evidence of a wider depersonalisation of society.

… kids who seem adrift in the increasingly isolating family culture that was being born in the nineties. They speak of family members who have televisions in their own rooms, who never eat dinner together, who live with one another in the sepulchral McMansions of Conyers the way people live together in hotels: nodding politely as they pass on the stairs, aware of one another’s schedules and routines but only in a vague, indifferent manner. These are kids—girls especially—who have developed a dull, curiously passionless relationship to their own sexuality, which they give of freely.

… The question is this: How, exactly, in the course of thirty years, did we get from Katherine to Gin? How did we go from a middle-class teenage girl (fictional but broadly accurate) who will have sex only if it’s with her boyfriend, and only if her pleasure is equal to his, to a middle-class teenage girl (a gross media caricature reflective of an admittedly disturbing trend) who wants to kneel down and service a series of boys? Katherine and her mother (who still enjoys a pleasurable sex life with her husband) represent two points on a continuum. In the mother’s generation sex was contained by marriage; in the daughter’s it was contained by love and relationships. The next point on this progression ought to be a girl who feels that nothing save her own desire should control her choice of sexual partners. Instead we see a group of young girls who have in effect turned away from their own desire altogether and have made of their sexuality something that fulfills all sorts of goals, but not the one paramount to Katherine and her mother: that it be sexually gratifying to themselves.

No wonder thoughtful parents want to home school. I don’t think that we can understand creationism unless we see that worrying about “Darwinism” is a proxy for worrying about these sorts of changes in society — and that they are worth worrying about.

1 It may be paywalled. I can’t tell from here, as I am a subscriber.

Teasing Nick Cohen

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

I didn’t get any reply to my offer of a drink with Nick, perhaps because I teased him about being wrong about the war – nobly wrong, perhaps, wrong from admirable motives – but still completely and utterly shit-faced wrong about the consequences of the invasion.

I wouldn’t have thought this was controversial. Practically everyone agrees that nuclear-armed theocracies are a very bad thing, which should so far as possible be discouraged, using force or the threat of force if necessary. Has the invasion of Iraq made it easier for Britain to discourage Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Has it made the threat of force more credible?

The answer is obviously and powerfully that it has had the opposite effect. Instead we now have an army large enough to serve as a hostage, but not large enough to defeat its enemies, stranded in the middle of a huge area run by forces loyal to Iran. If the Americans or anyone else bomb Iran’s nuclear plants, it is the British Army which will bear the immediate brunt of retaliation. This is not actually the fault of the antiwar left.

But the important thing about Nick’s wrongness is that the world would be a better place if he were right. His moral compass is not deficient: it’s just his moral map shows a huge continent that doesn’t in fact exist. He sees that both fascism and theocracy are wicked systems, antagonistic to the human spirit. So, he says, we should support the decent liberal secular Arabs who care about human rights. No argument here, either. But what matters, in Iraq, is whom the Iraqis support, and if we look at the last election the “Nick Cohen list”, as you might call it, was simply wiped out. Offered a reasonably free and full democratic choice, including liberal secularism and women’s rights, Iraqis voted in their millions for either theocracy or fascism instead; if Kurds, they voted not to be Iraqi at all.

This seems to me to make final nonsense of any kind of idealistic leftist defence of the war. It’s cheap and obvious to point out that the Bush gang would only install an honest and efficient government by accident. It’s also true, but that wouldn’t in itself be a conclusive argument against liberal imperialism. The accident might happen. The invaded country might demand it. But when you have an invading army that doesn’t care about good government, and an invaded country that doesn’t care for it, the liberal imperialist project can only discredit liberalism and imperialism both. I don’t see how that can be regarded as a triumph for the decent left.

The size of what?

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

A review in the FT Magazine of Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds, a book on online gaming, asks

“when will synthetic worlds become economies worth reckoning with? They are already real, and are the fastest growing economies in the world. But they are small: all the synthetic economies put together, with about ten milion players, are about the size of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

But I don’t think of Bosnia and Herzegovina as small. I remember a country that took a day to cross on bad roads, where hundreds of thousands of people grew enough food to eat.

Strictly for smartarses

Thursday, January 12th, 2006

The FWB has just sent me a bumper sticker, arising from her latin homework

Sic hoc adfixum in obice legere potes, et liberaliter educatus et nimis propinquus ades


More soho memories

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

In 1980, Jeffrey Bernard had been a hopeless alcoholic for fifteen years but he had only turned professional seven years before, when he started a weekly column on his life in the Spectator. The magazine had hired him as television critic, but by seven in the evening he was normally on the verge of passing out, before video tapes this was a disadvantage. So he was bumped sideways to write "Low Life": 650 words a week of bitter, cantankerous whinging about the pleasures of his life that could make grown men weep with laughter. He was the man I most wanted to meet when I started as a young factory worker to write for the magazine myself.

In 1978 he had written his own obituary: "Aged 14 he paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look upward. It was here in the cafés and pubs of Dean Street and Old Compton street that he was to develop his remarkable sloth, envy, and self-pity."

After drink, he loved women, horses, and unfiltered cigarettes, all most immoderately and with frequent confusions between them: one night he rang the novelist Jill Neville, and when her husband answered the phone asked him to run away and marry him. When his third wife was unimpressed by his reckoning that he had slept with 250 women he started to claim 500. Whichever figure applied, he was a man of startling good looks well into his fifties. Drink ravaged rather than bloated him, and all his life he had a smile like the devil at fifteen.

He lived at the Shaftesbury Avenue end of the Coach and Horses, a large, rather grim pub in Greek Street in Soho, though his formal address between marriages was a bedroom in someone else’s flat. Shortly after eleven every morning, he would arrive grey and shaking, holding a copy of the Times. Somewhere around midday, after an hour’s steady drinking — vodka, lime, and soda water until he had to give up the lime because it tickled his diabetes — his conversation would take wing and for about an hour he could be luminously funny, charming and profound. "Just as sexual intercourse is an interesting way to meet people, buying rounds is in interesting way to go on meeting them."

Most of this talk ended up in his column, improved by the removal of the surrounding life. By two in the afternoon, much of the interest would have gone from his eyes and most of his listeners would be half-way between lunch and coma. He seemed to drink between a bottle and a half and two bottles of vodka every day, and to keep up with him was impossible for anyone not in the most rigorous training. But by the early Eighties there was seldom a shortage of admirers to buy him drinks and tap into his column at the source.

After 1989, when a play was made of his life, which ran for a year in the West End with Peter O’Toole in the title role, it grew difficult to force one’s way into the crush at that end of the Coach; but fame didn’t change his life, except to make him able to afford it, though he was never free of debt since he objected to taxes and paid them only on the point of jail. One of his favourite remarks was that doctors would never really cure misery until they could prescribe money on the National Health.

By the time I knew him the women had slowed down enough that he could remember their names, (he married his fourth and briefest wife in 1979) and often he would fill a column with bitter animadversions on someone trying to save him from himself, usually identified by names such as She Who Would Drown In My Eyes, or She who would Iron 14 Shirts. Several months of this treatment would usually see off the most persistent.

But he remained a figure of fascination for women readers; and in 1985, I was trying to impress a rather literary girl, who told me how much she had laughed at a column in which Jeff had described waking to find he had a paper clip in his pubic hair, and no idea of what he might have done the previous night to lodge it there.

So I arranged for us to meet, on our first date, in the Coach and Horses before supper. When she arrived I was talking, as I’d planned, to the great man. He left the bar and sat across from us at a small table where he talked for about twenty minutes, with studious concentration, about President Ulysses S Grant. Just as my date grew completely bewildered, he leant across the table, and said with sudden hoarse vehemence "You know the trouble with English girls? You have to buy them a meal before they let you fuck them."

There was nothing to say after that except "Where would you like to have supper?" Later that evening I discovered that I had no money to pay for either the meal or the subsequent taxi, and we had to walk the last mile back to her flat.

His last years were grim. His health had always been fragile. He had first been told the drink was about to kill him in 1965 and towards the end of the Eighties the joke began to run out. First he gave up smoking; then he had one leg removed, from complications of his diabetes. Finally he gave up drink; and then his kidneys failed. In a last, magnificent gesture of abstinence, he gave up kidney dialysis last week. He would have been enchanted to know that he shared the obituaries pages with Mother Teresa, and died thirty years older than Diana.

This was a piece which may or may not have appeared in Salon. I know I wrote it some time after Jeff died, and had it turned down, very nicely, by the New Yorker on the grounds that it was too late, but would I like to try again with other stuff. In the spirit of Jeffness, I never did. Sandy Fawkes’ death reminded me of it, though, so here you are.

Flotsam on the coast of Bohemia

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

If I had not drunk with her on occasion I would not have believed this obit of Sandy Fawkes could be truthful, but the Coach and Horses really was like that. Only the Telegraph can do this sort of obituary right. I particularly liked the way that it was thought among the more memorable facts of her life that Sandy Fawkes did go through periods of abstinence, in 1987 doing without drink for more than three months.

Shorter Nick Cohen

Sunday, January 8th, 2006

I’ve been exchanging emails with my old chum, who laboured by my side for years to keep upright the bar of the Angel in Old Street; he tells me I’m writing a book on what’s happened to the Left provisionally entitled ‘Fuck Off the Lot of You’

I hope to have more news of this project.

Comprehensive education

Sunday, January 8th, 2006

The scene: a class of fifteen year olds being taught "personal and social development", in a largely middle class comprehensive school. The teacher presents them with an ethical dilemma, from her pack of materials.

Teacher: Annie is pregnant

Children: Whoo! Yes! We knew that already!

Teacher: She is seventeen

Children: No she’s not. She’s fifteen

Teacher: The father is also seventeen. He has promised to stand by her whatever she does.

Children: No he’s not. It could be any one of four blokes and no one knows who.

Teacher ploughs on with the material, wishing she’d had the wit to change the name.