‘What other culture could have produced someone like Ernest Hemingway,’ waspish bisexual American exile Gore Vidal once asked of America’s favourite so-butch-he’s-camp writer, ‘and not seen the joke?’. The answer, was, of course, that only a culture that couldn’t see the joke could produce a Hemingway.
I don’t know whether Matt Lucas and David Walliams read Vidal or Hemingway, but in Little Britain USA, the recently launched HBO spin-off of their hit UK TV comedy sketch series (which is also airing on BBC1), they seem to be posing that question again – though this time the answer has some bearing on the likelihood of Stateside success of their show. In Little Britain USA ‘Our Boys’ (as a cheer-leading UK media seem to have tagged the camp duo) have put their probing finger on one of the most ticklish fault-lines of US culture: how ‘gay’ big butch God-fearing America can seem – and how comically in denial of this Americans can be.
There certainly seems to be a bit of Hemingway, who loved his guns, in the moustachioed cop (played by Walliams) who gets a visible hard-on while demonstrating his impressive collection of weapons to his fellow officers. But it’s in the steroid-scary shape of the towel-snapping ‘Gym Buddies’, Tom and Mark, who like to take long showers together after pumping iron, and graphically re-enacting what they did to the ‘pussy’ they pulled last night – with each other’s huge latex bubble-butts and tiny penises – that the so-butch-it’s-camp not-so-hidden secret of American culture is graphically outed by Little Britain USA.
Along with pathological denial. In last week’s episode, when an alarmed bystander glances nervously at them humping naked in the locker room they retort: ‘Whaddyou lookin at? Are you A FAG??’ Walliams, who is so camp he’s almost butch (a ladies’ man off-screen he has been described repeatedly by the UK press as ‘the ultimate metrosexual’), seems especially proud of the Gym Buddies sketch – describing it as ‘possibly the most outrageous we’ve ever done’. Certainly it’s drawn most fire from critics in the US, who have given the series very mixed reviews.
Lucas and Walliam’s gleefully amoral queer sensibility – they’re basically drag queens on a revenge trip, especially when they dress up as men – was always going to be difficult for America to swallow. But touching Uncle Sam up in the locker room may well make it a lot harder… er, I mean, more difficult. America, even that part of it that watches HBO, may not want to get that joke. Especially when made by a couple of faggy Brits. And by the way, while we over here might think American butchness tres gay – e.g. the locker-room and volley-ball scenes in Top Gun – all Europeans look ‘faggy’ to Americans, especially us Brits. The sketch featuring Walliams as a flaming Brit Prime Minister trying to get into the straight black US President’s pants probably won’t offend as much as Walliams hopes since most Americans thought Tony Blair was gay anyway.
Rather sweetly, compared to the UK, America is a country where masculinity and machismo is still sacred – despite having done more than any other country to make it obsolete by inventing men’s shopping magazines. In the US of A, it seems, anything masculine can’t be gay and vice versa. Hence Hummersexual Tom and Mark. Hence ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. And hence all that fuss the US made over that mediocre gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain which, when it arrived in the UK, promptly bored everyone senseless.
America’s love of the masculine body, is gloriously ‘gay’ – or, more accurately, homoerotic. But alas, until now Uncle Sam has been terribly ashamed of his natural, red-blooded and blatantly bloody obvious bi-responsiveness.
Only America, God Bless, could have produced UFC, a hugely popular pay-per-view ‘full-contact-sport’ that involves two young muscled men in shorts trying to get each other’s legs around their ears (Tom and Mark probably watch it together – in their UFC shorts). Only America could produce a best-selling men’s workout magazine like Men’s Health, put men’s pumped tits and abs on the cover every month and strenuously maintain the pretence that none of its readers are gay or bisexual – or even metrosexual. Only America could produce a film like last year’s ‘300′, essentially a toga-themed Chippendale flick for teen boys – but because it was made for American teen boys its denial was even more preposterous than its pectorals: the baddie had to be a big black club queen in a spangly Speedo.
Mind you, ‘300′ had at least one virtue, albeit unintentional: it was rather funnier than Little Britain USA. Perhaps the biggest problem Walliams and Lucas face in ramming their sensibility down Uncle Sam’s throat isn’t America’s gay denial or gagging reluctance to see the camp joke, but simply the fact that, on the basis of the first couple of shows, their American ‘outing’just isn’t very funny.
Mark Simpson on the almost-forgotten ‘English Whitman’
On his 80th birthday in 1924, five years before his death, the socialist Utopian poet, mystic, activist, homophile, environmentalist, feminist and nudist Edward Carpenter received an album signed by every member of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Cabinet. Glowing tributes appeared in the socialist papers as well as the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and even the Egyptian Gazette.
He was hailed by the philosopher C.E.M. Joad as the harbinger, no less, of modernity itself: ‘Carpenter denounced the Victorians for hypocrisy, held up their conventions to ridicule, and called their civilisation a disease,’ he wrote. ‘He was like a man coming into a stuffy sitting room in a seaside boarding house, and opening the window to let in light and air…’.
In the early Twentieth Century Carpenter was a celebrity, a hero, a guru, a prophet, a confidant: an Edwardian Morrissey, Moses and Claire Rayner in one. Multitudes of men and women – but mostly young men – had beaten a path to his door in his idyllic rural retreat-cum-socialist-boarding-house in Millthorpe, near Sheffield to sit at his vegetarian, be-sandled feet, or take part in his morning sun-baths and sponge-downs in his back garden.
Soon after his death, however, his charismatic reputation faded faster than a Yorkshire tan. By the middle of the century he was the height of fashionability, and regarded by many on the left as a crank. When that manly Eton-educated proletarian George Orwell decried the left’s habit of attracting ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England’ everyone knew whom he was dissing.
Today very few would. Despite his extensive writings, despite – or perhaps because of – the way many of his causes and indeed much of his lifestyle have become mainstream, and despite the brief renaissance of his works with the gay left after the emergence of gay lib in the 60s and 70s – a movement which he appeared to predict – and a hefty, worthy and yet also fascinating new biography by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty; Verso) notwithstanding, it sometimes seems as there’s almost nothing left of Ted, as his friends called him, save his beard and sandals (he seems to have introduced sandal-wearing to these shores). He’s become the Cheshire cat of fin de siècle English Utopianism. In fact, one could argue, and I will, that the thing that connects most of us with Carpenter today is EM Forster’s arse.
George Merrill, Carpenter’s uninhibited Sheffield working-class partner touched Forster’s repressed Cambridge backside during a visit to Milthorpe in 1912:
‘…gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most peoples. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.’
Inspired by Merrill’s tykish directness, Forster, went home, sat down on his probably still-tingling buttocks and wrote the first ‘gay’ novel Maurice, which famously featured a love-affair between Scudder the sunburnt and impetuous groundsman Alec and the uptight, middle-class Maurice. Though it wasn’t to be published until after terminally timid Forster’s death, DH Lawrence saw the manuscript and was himself touched: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is in many ways a heterosexualised Maurice. And of course, when Maurice was made into a film in the 1980s starring James Wilby and Rupert Graves succeeded in making millions of rumps, male and female, tingle at a time when homosexuality, as a result of Section 28 and Aids had become a major cultural battleground.
Before Merrill, Edward Carpenter’s buttocks had been touched by the American sage Walt Whitman and his passionately romantic poems about male comradeship, frequently involving working men and sailors, whom he travelled to the US to meet (though it is unclear whether here the touching was literal or metaphorical). Carpenter became a kind of English Whitman figure, though more outspoken on the subject of toleration of same-sex love than Whitman ever dared to be in the US – if not, alas, nearly as fine a poet (another reason why his work hasn’t endured).
Lytton Strachey decreed sniffily that Alec and Maurice’s relationship rested upon ‘lust and sentiment’ and would only last six weeks. Whatever Merrill and Edward Carpenter’s relationship was based on – and Robotham argues that it was rather complicated and not what it appeared to be – it lasted nearly 40 years, and was an inspiration to many.
Carpenter was nothing if not sentimental, when he wasn’t being just patronising. He described Merrill as his ‘dear son’, his ‘simple nature child’ his ‘rose in winter’ his ‘ruby embedded in marl and clay’ and delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’. Raised in the Sheffield slums and without any formal education Merrill was almost untouched by Christianity. On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night on Gethsemane Merrill’s response was “who with?”
It was Merrill’s – and the innumerable other working class male lovers that Carpenter had both before and after meeting him – lack of ‘self-consciousness’, or perceived lack of it, that attracted Carpenter, who was born into an upright upper middle class family in Hove, Brighton (and it was his sizeable inheritance that financed his purchase of Milthorpe and his comradely life in the North). He was drawn to the working classes because he saw them as rescuing him from himself – as much as he was rescuing them.
‘Eros is a great leveller’, Carpenter wrote in The Intermediate Sex. ‘Perhaps the true democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society’. He observed that many ‘Uranians’ ‘of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way.’
It’s worth pointing out that even Wilde and Bosie’s relationship, which was to cause Forster and many other homosexuals at that time such grief, was based on their mutual enjoyment of rent boys. Carpenter disapproved of such exploitation, but it’s not impossible to imagine Wilde, or one of his characters, jesting that people like Carpenter were socialists only because they didn’t want to pay for their trade.
Robotham to her credit doesn’t shrink from pointing out the limits of Carpenter’s socialism: ‘Carpenter never queried his own tacit presumption that the lower classes and subordinated races were to be defended when vulnerable and abject but treated with contempt when they sought individual advancement.’ To this it could be added that if Carpenter succeeded in abolishing class, then with it would be abolished the interest in the working classes of men like Carpenter. Each man kills the thing he loves.
What though was working class youth’s interest in Carpenter? In a word: attention. It seems they were flattered to be singled out and treated with casual equality by a gent, and an attractive, charming one at that. One young lover wrote of Carpenter: ‘You feel inclined to get hold of him as a boy would his mate’ and talked of his ‘Handsome appearance – his erect, lithe body, trim and bearded face, penetrating eyes and beautiful voice.’ Carpenter was to continue attracting young working class men to his door well into silver-haired old age.
Carpenter had a contradictory view of homosexuality, seeing those exclusively attracted to their own sex as psychically androgynous ‘intermediates’ like himself who were ‘born that way’ – but also as harbingers of a new age, the cultural ‘advance guard’ of socialism in which a Utopian androgyny would be the norm. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for a future world of Carpenters. George Bernard Shaw for one was enraged by the idea that ‘intermediacy’ should be recommended to ‘the normal’ as the desired way to be.
EM Forster described Carpenter’s mysticism as the usual contradiction of wanting ‘merge with the cosmos and retain identity’ at the same time. This in fact described pretty much everything, from Ted’s attitude towards comradeship and homosexuality, class and socialism, and even Millthorpe where he would write standing in a sentry box he had built in his garden while his ‘retreat’ was overrun by guests.
His championing of androgyny and female emancipation also had contradictions. Robotham describes his horror and disgust at the androgyny of a Siva statue he witnessed on a mystical visit to India as being ‘akin to the disgust he had felt at seeing the female nudes in a French art gallery…’. For Carpenter, ‘acceptable femininity consisted of lithe gay men and supportive, tom-boyish sister figures.’
Carpenter’s works were taken up by the gay libbers and New Left in the 60s and 70s partly because of his rejection of male and female sex-roles and also because of his proto-gay-commune lifestyle in Millthorpe, with his open relationship with Merrill (and also several local married men). For Carpenter, the personal was political long before it became a lapel button.
But in the 1980s gay lib was replaced by gay consumerism, ‘intermediates’, particularly many working class ones keen to advance themselves, turned out to be the vanguard not of a back-to-basics socialist Utopia but of High Street Thatcherism. The mainstreaming of ‘lifestylism’ happened largely because it was divorced from politics – and Carpenter – and became about shopping. Which would have horrified Ted who had an upper middle class disdain for ‘trade’ (the shopkeeping kind). Lord only knows what he would have made of the consumerist androgyny of the metrosexual.
Perhaps the most lasting and pertinent thing about his life is a question: How on Earth did the old bugger get away with it? How did he avoid a huge scandal? How did he end up so lionised in his old age? Especially when you consider what happened to Wilde?
The answer is probably the same reason for his lack of appeal today. His prose now seems often strangely precious and oblique and replete with coy, coded classical references. Worst of all for modern audiences, he necessarily downplayed the sexual aspect of same-sex love. His most influential work Homogenic Love, published in 1895, the first British book to deal with the subject of same-sex desire as something other than a medical or moral problem, rejects the word ‘homosexual’ ostensibly on the grounds that it was a ‘bastard’ word of Greek and Latin, but probably because the Latin part was too much to the point.
Class helped too: when the police threatened to prosecute some of his works as obscene he was able to scare them off with an impressively long list of Establishment supporters. Even his live-in relationship with Merrill was often seen as one of master and servant (and in fact that’s how Merrill, who was financially dependent on Carpenter, was legally described).
ESP Haynes suspected that Carpenter might not be as simple as he presented himself, that his mysticism ‘gave him a certain detachment which protected him against prosecution as a heretic’. To which Rowbotham drily remarks: ‘As for the non-mystical Merrill, he just tried out the idealistic admirers’. (Or as that other Northern vegetarian prophet Morrissey was to sing many years later: ‘I recognise that mystical air/it means I’d like to seize your underwear.’)
Whatever Carpenter’s survival secret, it’s rather wonderful for us that he did, and although his haziness may be part of the reason he fades in and mostly out of consciousness today, as Robotham concludes her sympathetic yet clear-eyed study: ‘One thing is certain, this complicated, confusing, contradictory yet courageous man is not going to vanish entirely from view.’
Timing is everything for an actor, and Newman’s curtain-call, coming as it does amidst meltdown on Wall Street and panic on Capitol Hill, and at the end of a decade defined by the twin disasters of 9-11 and Iraq, is nothing if not dramatic. The myriad obituaries and tributes to Paul Newman in the last few days have been richly deserved, but his passing seems to symbolize more than just the death of a great and well-loved actor, or even the curtain falling on one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system. It seems almost to mark the demise of the American Dream itself. A dream that is looking more and more like a distinctly mid-to-late 20th Century reverie.
But what a reverie! Newman was stunning in his youth, like a neo-Classical Florentine statue brought very magically to life: those proud cheekbones, that straight nose connecting with his thoughtful brow, the square dimpled chin and his tight little (non-steroidal) boxer body, that claspable neck, those white teeth, those pouting lips and those preternaturally pale blue eyes, more inviting than penetrating, that seemed to contain in their coolness, the un-spoilt, exciting, abundant promise of America’s plains, lakes and shining seas. The fact that in his personal life he turned out to be an extraordinarily generous and socially-concerned chap makes that promise even more poignant.
Newman, who himself was part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ (he served in the Pacific during the Second World War), was the post-war American Dream made beautiful, friendly flesh. Somehow, projected on silver screens around the world in the 1950s and 1960s, this demigod managed to be entirely desirable but also entirely approachable. In other words: American. Everyone, male and female, wanted to buy him a drink and be his buddy or lover or both – and, crucially, thought they could be. Newman was one of the actors (all from the 1950s and 1960s) I watched as a kid on TV that made me announce to anyone that would listen that ‘when I grow up I’m going to move to America to become mates with those blokes in the movies!’.
In terms of projecting the American way of life around the world, Hollywood’s Paul Newman was worth more than a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – and probably rather more fun in bed.
It’s no accident that Newman’s two most popular movies were both buddy-love vehicles with the (almost) equally all-American Robert Redford: ‘Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’ (1969) and ‘The Sting’ (1973). Newman seems to have been slightly exasperated that most people had missed the point of ‘Butch Cassidy’: that it was a film about male love – a male romance. It was in many ways the original and much superior Brokeback Mountain, thirty years before the tedious, mawkish Ang Lee ‘remake’. For my popcorn money, Butch/Newman’s and Sundance/Redford’s love for each other is much more convincing and affecting than that of their Noughties men’s-fashion-shoot-with-a-Western-theme counterparts, despite never being consummated.
Newman’s tough vulnerability and deliciously flawed masculinity seem to have made his relationship to homosexuality symbolically central to his cinematic persona; the fact he seems to have been a very happily married heterosexual in ‘real’ life only adds to his mythos. Below is a YouTube clip of Newman (with a Placebo soundtrack you can mute), pouting peerlessly as Brick in the 1958 movie version of Tennessee Williams classic ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ as an all-American jock struggling with his secret love for Skipper his buddy who has committed suicide, Big Daddy’s expectations of a grandson and the ‘mendacity’ of family-values American life.
Because of the mendacity of 1950s Hollywood, the movie-version of William’s script bowdlerised Brick’s latent homosexuality. However, such was the troubled erotic power of Newman’s appearance on the screen that the original meaning still somehow shines through, despite the baby-making happy ending.
Perhaps it’s just me, but all these years later Elizabeth Taylor, wonderfully youthfully glamorous as she is here, now sometimes looks less like Brick’s wife and more like his incestuous young mother. There was already something not quite right about the American Dream back in the 1950s, and Tennessee Williams couldn’t leave it alone.
As for the rest of us, we couldn’t leave Paul Newman alone.
This month’s Out magazine includes a feature by yours truly on my visit to Montreal in April to see the biggest, baddest, ballsiest Ultimate Fighting Championship event ever. UFC, for those who aren’t in the know, or unaccountably uninterested in seeing fit, near-naked men grappling and grunting, is the cage-fighting craze that is rapidly becoming the most popular sport with young men in North America.
Out tell me my take has provoked some threats against my pretty face from outraged MMA fans. It seems my crime was enjoying it too much. Other less shall we say clenched followers of this man-mounting sport have however welcomed my interest – even if I breathe too heavily.
Here’s how the piece begins:
Imagine the space shuttle taking off with a really fat customized exhaust pipe or the Visigoths sacking Ancient Rome with kicking bass tubes fitted to their 4-by-4s. Or 20,000 supercharged male orgasms. Simultaneously. And you have some idea what it sounds and feels like in Montreal’s famous Bell Centre tonight for Ultimate Fighting Championship 83, as a spunky young carrot redhead in shorts pins an auburn lad on his back with his heels somewhere around his ears. I think the technical term for this is a “full mount.” Or maybe it’s “ground and pound.”
As the chiseled and blond bad guy with the low-slung shorts (Cam Gigandet) in the recent mixed martial arts (MMA) exploitation flick Never Back Down says leeringly to the doe-eyed brunet boxer good guy (Sean Faris) new to MMA, the good news is that in this sport you can choke, kick, punch, pin, and throttle; “the bad news is that it’s gotta end with you looking like a bitch in front of everybody.” Perhaps it was bad news for him — and for the auburn lad in the ring tonight — but certainly not for the 22,000-strong overwhelmingly young-male audience for the biggest-ever UFC event.
Over 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas, “slapper” Brit boxer Joe Calzaghe is tonight defeating light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins on points. In the long-established world of boxing, there is rumored to be an ancient and secret tradition called the “perk,” or “perquisite” — by which the losing man may be required later to literally give up what he has lost symbolically. In other words, the fucked gets…really fucked.
I don’t know how much truth there is to the “perk,” though the breathless trash talk of modern-day boxers in the run-up to a fight — “I’m gonna make you my bitch/girlfriend/punk” — certainly doesn’t discredit it. But I’m fairly certain that the “perk” doesn’t exist in the “full-contact” brave new world of mixed martial arts, an omnivorous blend of boxing, freestyle wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, kickboxing, karate, jujitsu, and Thai boxing that is rapidly replacing boring old traditional boxing, especially among young men, as the fighting sport. The perk isn’t needed. Because in MMA you get fucked in the “ring” in front of everybody. On pay-per-view TV. The “perk” is the whole, er, perking point, man. And UFC, by far the most successful purveyor of MMA fights for the cable TV voyeur, looks remarkably like gay porn for straight men: Ultimate Fuck-Fighting.
The phenomenon of manlove for ladies, which I wrote about recently, citing The Mighty Boosh snog, seems to be catching:
‘Former Buffy the Vampire star James Marsters helped fulfil one of his girlfriend’s fantasies on the set of sci-fi series Torchwood – when he locked lips with John Barrowman.
The actor plays flamboyant bisexual Captain John in the cult TV show and had to share a same sex kiss for the first time.
Marsters says, “I had never kissed a man on film before, but luckily my girlfriend was there, and she said it was always a fantasy of hers that I would kiss another man. She thought it was really hot.”‘
Torchwood was created by Russell T Davies, the writer behind the hit drama Queer As Folk set in Manchester’s gay village – a series whose success was largely down to its huge popularity with women. Probably because it was basically: Take That Finally Get Down To It.
Speaking personally, John Barrowman is about as unsexy as you can get – even with James Marsters dressed as Adam Ant plastered all over his face.
But what do I know? It’s the ladies calling the queer shots now.