The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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All Aboard the Prideful Virchoo-Choo Train!

At long last, the LGBTQ+ community finally has its own ‘first fully-wrapped Pride train entirely staffed by an LGBTQ+ crew’.

Launched this week by Avanti, it will whizz up and down the West Coast line between London and Glasgow, flying the rainbow flag, educating the public and raising awareness.

And possibly ocassionally getting them from A to B.

As the press release states:

With a strong focus on LGBTQ+ education, the train will be filled with literature, stories and colourful posters and will feature Pride related information and fun facts during the onboard announcements.

Yes, but will poppers be available from the refreshment trolley? And will they be playing Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ on the PA?

But this isn’t a joking matter. It’s yet another sign of the blatant and systemic homophobia rampant in the UK that it has taken until now to provide the LGBTQ+ community with eleven carriages and 265 metres of fully-wrapped prideful parrot sick.

Introducing the Pride Train 🌈

Of course, the Pride train isn’t for ‘the LGBTQ+ community’ – many of whom would probably rather stay at home sticking pins in their eyes than be seen on such an eyesore. I mean, how do you colour co-ordinate with that?

It’s not even for heterosexuals, who aren’t allowed to work on it. No, it’s a shiny, high profile vehicle for yet another company to advertise its ‘progressive’ and ‘diverse’ corporate credentials.

The train operator Avanti has adopted the most recent iteration of the Pride flag which sees the addition of the colours black, brown, light blue, pink and white to bring people of colour, transgender people and those living with or who have been lost to HIV/AIDS to the forefront highlighting  Avanti West Coast’s progressive commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Avanti humbly put themselves at the back of the Pride train, but of course its their train.

The rainbow flag and Pride have for some years now been assimilated by companies keen to virtue signal as a way of conveying their corporate messaging. It’s almost impossible to tell now where Pride ends and feelgood financial institution advertising begins.

In the age of social media, virtue signalling is the fastest, most cost-effective, smoothest form of advertising because your corporate messaging will be publicised by a public also keen to virtue signal. The punters push your gravy train for you. And ‘proudly’.

The Pride train represents the latest, biggest, fastest, longest – and most horrifying – weapon in the corporate virtue-signalling race. I’m sure Avanti are feeling incredibly ‘proud’ of themselves and the wide press and social media coverage their dayglo doomsday machine generated.

And indeed, how can anyone resist a 265 metre, 500 ton rainbow flag and re-education camp travelling at 125mph?

But somewhere an ad agency creative is already pitching something even more ambitious on Zoom to their corporate client. ‘I’m visioning we paint a whole city and everyone in it in the latest iteration of the rainbow flag! It would look totally amazing and would just be so incredibly inclusive and diverse!’

The rainborg flag will assimilate you. Resistance is futile.

Which reminds me, Avanti’s Pride train has the same number of carriages, eleven, as there are initials in the ‘latest iteration’ of the LGBT acronym -LBGTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual).

That ‘+’ in ‘LGBTQ+’ is doing a lot of work. But it’s not just an abbreviation – it’s a promise. ‘More initials soon’.

So when the acronym inevitably grows even longer and ‘more inclusive’ again, Avanti will likely go bankrupt. The bill for platform lengthening at every station on the West Coast line will be ruinous.

How I Killed Father Ted

This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the much-loved UK sitcom Father Ted. This unpublished interview with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which I pointed out how many priests drop dead in their hit sitcom – was commissioned by Deluxe magazine in February 1998. The day after I handed my copy in, Father Ted, alias Dermot Morgan, 45,dropped dead of a heart attack. The interview was spiked and the series cancelled.

‘Nobody comes. Nobody goes. Nothing happens. It’s awful!’

Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett

Every decade has its sitcom. In the Sixties it was Steptoe and Son – generational conflict between two junk men left behind by Progress. In the Seventies it was Are You Being Served? – class war, campery and skiving in a department store going to the dogs. In the Eighties it was Blackadder – doomed get-rich-quick schemes of an ambitious, selfish, spineless loser. 

And in the Nineties it is Father Ted – crap priest exiled to a crap house on a crap island by the crap Italian-based multinational he works for, which forces him to mouth a crap corporate dogma which, try as he might, he can’t quite sound convinced by.

But Ted, now about to air its third series, is not just the best sitcom in years. It’s High Art. This is Beckett, but with better gags. Ted (Dermot Morgan) and his Holy Fool sidekick Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are waiting for a Godot that will never come in a wasteland of frustration, bereft of any certainties, any values, any purpose or any decent night-clubs. A place where the only consolation is an endless supply of hot tea from Mrs Doyle which you didn’t ask for. 

Father Ted is so inspired that even Ted’s hair, with its enigmatic greyness and mysterious, shifting voluminousness, is a character in itself. Naturally my first question to the writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan is, was it scripted?

Arthur: ‘It came with Dermot’.

Graham: ‘Dermot suggested it’.

Arthur: ‘Dermot suggested his own head’.

Time passes. 

Graham: ‘And it was just as well, because we were going to go for someone else’s head.’ 

Despite their occasionally Beckettian conversation, they seem like nice if slightly naughty Irish boys. They look the approximately the same age – thirty going on fourteen – but Arthur is actually ten years older than Graham who is 29. Graham talks more than Arthur, and seems more confident, but it’s not clear who wears the trousers in this relationship. Arthur grew up in Drogheda, a country town; Graham in Dublin. ‘I’m the City Slicker and Arthur’s the country boy,’ explains Graham. ‘I provide the hip cultural references and Arthur provides the authenticity.’

‘Thanks,’ says Arthur sarcastically. ‘I think that what Graham is saying is that it’s helpful for me to be from the country.’

‘And it’s helpful for me not to be,’ adds Graham.

They met when working on the Dublin listings mag Hot Press; Graham as a writer, Arthur as art director. After experimenting with a U2 pastiche band called The Joshua Trio they moved to London and wrote some sketches for Alas Smith & Jones before writing a very surreal series called Paris for Alexei Sayle in 1994. It wasn’t a hit.

Says Graham: ‘If you’d put it next to Ted and asked me which one was going to be a hit, I don’t know I’d have given you the right answer. I think perhaps it didn’t work because it didn’t have as many rules as Ted, and we didn’t realise that the central character is never as funny as all the satellite characters.’

Like Mrs Doyle, for instance, who is a seer and a prophet and deserves to be worshipped. Why don’t they give her more lines? There’s so much more that needs to be said about tea and sandwiches.

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ responds Graham, ‘because in this series we’ve tried to work a plot around each character and you get to meet Mrs Doyle’s friends. Who are, of course, exactly the same as she is. I’m sure you recognise some of your mother in Mrs Doyle…’

You know my mother??

Graham: ‘Well, you know the sort of thing I mean – you go round to your friend’s house and their mother….’

Arthur: ‘…will almost kill themselves if you ask them to nicely. “Would you mind killing yourself?” [Putting on a Mrs Doyle voice]: “Well, I don’t know…. Okay, I will.’

What do our dynamic comedy-writing duo like about one another? 

Arthur: ‘Graham’s a perfectionist. To a fault. He knows what works – he has really good instincts.’

Graham: ‘What do I like about Arthur? Er, well, it’s kind of like an imaginative haemorrhaging. He’ll sit down at a typewriter and millions of ideas will come out. That is so useful when you’re trying to get started. Arthur also has a lovely feeling for the way that priests talk.’ 

Where did the idea for Ted come from?

Arthur: ‘Growing up in Ireland we were surrounded by priests, of course, and so we didn’t have to look very far. The other day I saw a TV documentary from 1964 about Mods and there was a clip where we saw priests blessing their scooters. Now that’s pure Ted.’

Graham: ‘Arthur also used to do Ted as a stand-up character, so that makes writing for Ted very easy, because Arthur just has to start putting on his Ted voice and we’re away.’

It seems that the Irishness of Ted is the key to its success. Croft-Perry classic shows like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, which Ted is very much in the tradition of, depended upon a repression which no one would really believe in if it were set in ‘classless’, individualistic Nineties Britain.

Graham: ‘I think that British repression is kind of dull now because it’s been done. But no one knew what a repressed Irish person would do.’

Arthur: ‘And in Ireland, of course, Catholicism takes on the role of class. Everyone’s very deferential to the priests.’

The lads claim Ted isn’t anti-clerical, and certainly Ted’s bungling, agnostic vanity (i.e. his human-ness) is probably a PR victory next to newspaper headlines of be-cassocked kiddie-fiddling. But I put it to them that priests do tend to die on the show like flies. Every time Ted calls a dog-collared mate on his mobile another one bites the dust. 

Graham: ‘S’funny, no one’s pointed that out before. But… people dropping dead is funny. In a comedy.’

Arthur: ‘As opposed to a drama. Where it’s not.’

Come on, you don’t see many people dying in comedies. It isn’t that funny. But dead priests are for some reason. [At this, Arthur laughs very loudly]. Maybe it’s because they wear black and talk about death all the time. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not very real people….

Graham: ‘Well, we certainly trade on unreality in the programme. We’ve constructed a kind of mythology around the priesthood. Because being a priest is a closed book to most people you can make up stuff…’.

Or as Ted put it: ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism, Dougal. It’s so vague that no-one really knows what it’s about.’ If Catholicism were a movie, it would have to be a cartoon. And there is a very strong cartoon, ‘surreal’ element to Ted. 

Arthur: ‘We’re big cartoon fans. Especially of The Simpsons.’

I can see there’s some Homer Simpson in Ted, but isn’t there more Daffy Duck?

Graham: I’d say it was Rain Man and Daffy Duck. We had a joke which we never used where Ted drops some toothpicks on the floor and Dougal instantly says, ’4,777’ and then cut-to an hour later and Ted, whose been counting them, says: ‘4,777 indeed. It’s 4,776, actually.’

Catholicism also provides a useful reason why Ted and Dougal are stuck together and why they share the same bedroom in such a big house – like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise. 

‘Yes, there’s something that connects them all,’ admits Graham. ‘It’s as if they were non-sexual lovers, as if they were co-dependent brothers.’

Or just married – most marriages are non-sexual and co-dependent.

‘Maybe,’ laughs Graham. ‘I always hoped we’d get a gay following for Ted, in the same way as The Golden Girls did. But it didn’t happen.’

Probably because you don’t have enough drag-queen female characters. Will you be having a fourth series, now, boys?

‘You have to be careful not to outstay your welcome,’ hedges Graham. ‘We have to make each series better than the last. And that gets harder each time. At the moment we’re not sure.’

Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on. Just in yer hand. You will. Go on. 

Lockdown Pressups

Mark Simpson on the joy of gyms & the dreary barbarism of home workouts

A week before gyms were shuttered for lockdown back in March, I managed to buy a pull-up bar, a dip stand – great for lower pecs, triceps, inverted rows and drying socks – plus an ab roller. (I’m not sure whether ab rollers actually work, but they make me think I’m Richard Gere in American Gigolo.)

My smugness at successfully planning ahead for the gympocalypse before home workout equipment transmuted into gold dust was slightly dented however by the fact that I somehow completely forgot about actual weights – so had to buy a 17.5kg pair of dumbells for silly money. About three times the pre-lockdown price.

It took me several weeks to install the pull-up bar – it’s a permanently fixed one that requires substantial drilling, controlled explosions and deep-sea anchors to fit. It was as much down to wishful thinking as DIY-phobia – I hoped and prayed gyms would reopen before I had to install it on my most suitable wall – in my living room . Where it will remain forever: pandemic wall art.

Initially, I was full of determination not to let my over-muscled middle-aged physique – or self-love – wither away. After all, when you’re in your 50s you’re going to struggle to put that beef back on. And the last thing I want at my age is for nature to take its course.

I studied innumerable, exhaustive and exhausting online home workout videos. I printed off charts depicting every dumbbell exercise imaginable. And several that weren’t. I made lists and routines, which I carefully pinned to my fridge.

Pro sporno Bradley Simmonds getting sweaty in Men’s Health’s topless & tight bottoms gym

I even worked out. Fairly furiously and frequently. Convincing myself, like a recently dumped lover, that working out by yourself at home was actually, like, really GREAT. And, anyway, who needs gyms? And how fab is it that you can work out in your pajamas? Or do a spot of gardening in between sets!

But that was early lockdown.

As lockdown dragged on and on and on, and as the re-opening of gyms got pushed further and further back – after pretty much everything, including pubs – I could no longer avoid the truth. The truth that strangely, none of those evangelical home workout videos mentioned.

Home workouts are shit.

Gyms existed for a reason. Not just that they have all the equipment and space you need to work out, but also there’s not much else to do there except work out. Once you’ve paid your membership, pulled your stretchy pants on, taken your pre-workout and turned up you feel foolish about turning round and going home for a sandwich or to do some dusting.

When you work out at home there is no shame and these things happen regularly between sets. In my case, by mid-lockdown a workout ended up taking me most of a week to complete.

I actually began to have dreams about being at the gym. And no, not those kind of dreams about hanging around the steam room and showers, Top Gun stylee, but dreams of actually working out in a place designed and equipped for it.

It was only when they started talking about the possibility reopening gyms in late July that I began to start exercising at home with a less listless attitude. Suddenly there seemed to be a point. I wanted to look as good as I could for my re-entrance. And really, ‘fitness’ is all very well and good, but if you’re not showing off as well then isn’t it all a bit monkish?

Contrary to what I said before, gyms are not just places where you go to work out. They are also places you go to check each other out. Places of inspiration, not just perspiration. Competition, comparison, exhibitionism – envy and desiring. Life, in other words.

I’ve missed it.

As someone who already worked from home before lockdown, the gym was vital. It got me out of the house. It got me out of myself. It got me offline. It got me talking to actual flesh-and-blood people – many of them very fleshly indeed. It got my pulse up. And it got my pectorals big.

So it won’t surprise you that I’ve been almost every day since they reopened in the UK a few weeks ago, and I feel as reborn as someone my age can be. My first session – the first in four months – was almost quasi-sexual. (Yes, I sanitised the bench after me).

Amazingly, I suddenly had enough room to pump iron in without worrying about knocking over the telly. Huge racks of dumbells and barbells of every weight to choose from. As well as strange, alien equipment such as ‘bench presses’ and ‘squat racks’ to play with. Even better, I was surrounded by lads in shorts and vests offering me encouragement.

(In my mind.)

Gymnasia, not democracy, philosophy or kalamata olives, are the greatest gift the Greeks gave Western Civilisation. Even if we are still terribly overdressed in them by their standards (‘gymnos’ = ‘naked’). I will never take them for granted again.

And so long as I can grasp a dumbell, I never, ever want to watch a dreary, barbaric home workout video again.

(Unless it has Bradley Simmonds stretching in his compression pants.)

Spornosexual pride

As for spornosexuals, lockdown inevitably put them into hibernation. But they are coming out of it now, and want to make up for lost staring time. Spornos need to share.

Exhibit A – the swole guy who walked down Oxford Street in London stark naked, save for a face-mask posing pouch last month. It was on the day that masks were made mandatory in shops in England, and he does seem to be pointedly mocking this – but it was also, and this was something missed in the reporting, the day before the gyms reopened.

He was obviously a dedicated gym-goer who had done an awesomely good job of maintaining his muscle size during four months of gymlessness. An inspiration to us all – no wonder he wanted to show off.

P.E with Joe | Monday 23rd March 2020
No – things never got so bad that I found myself watching Mr Wicks

It may be that post-lockdown, many gyms will find that their core market is more sporno than before. ‘Hard core’ male gym-goers who haven’t been seduced by Joe Wicks’ flowing, domesticated locks, or socially-distanced runs in the park. And haven’t been terrorised by articles in Men’s Health and the Guardian about the horrifying dangers of going back to the gym, or leaving the house. (Instead of staying at home watching MH workout videos.)

I’m happy to report that my gym has been reassuringly busy-ish – if socially distanced. And everyone is wearing their own face. Which is nice.

Doubtless PM Boris Johnson’s much-publicised ‘war on obesity’ – which he launched after closing gyms and ordering everyone to STAY HOME – will make fitness a more general concern. But spornosexuality always had a particular interpretation of the the word ‘fit’. 

One that will never have anything to do with Boris.

This post was based in part on answers to questions asked by Max Olesker for his London Times feature ‘Will men go back to the gym to get ripped?’

Metrosexual Podcastery

Back in early March I contributed over the phone to a Slate magazine podcast by Willa Paskin on the history of the metrosexual Stateside.

I first wrote about my insufferably pretty offspring in the UK’s Independent newspaper in 1994 – but in 2002 I introduced him to the US on The essay went viral and he quickly spread himself around like nobody’s business.

After I spoke to Slate, another kind of pandemic intervened. But the podcast is now up and you can, if you’re so inclined, listen to it here.

I’ve not yet got around to reviewing it myself (you won’t believe me, but I hate the sound of my voice). So can’t vouch for its accuracy or otherwise.  

If I sound a little rough around the edges this may have something to do with the transatlantic connection, and the fact I was coming down with gastric flu at the time. Which definitely wasn’t pretty.

Though of course, now I wonder whether it really was gastric flu – or something more ‘novel’….

Cecil Beaton: Valour in the Face of Beauty

In a world saturated with social me-dear surveillance and suffused with surplus selfies, being ‘interesting’ becomes ever-more compulsory – just as it becomes ever-more elusive. Not only for artists in this brave new connected, visual, attention-seekingworld, but for civilians too.

Little wonder that Cecil Beaton, a man who essentially invented himself and his astonishing career with a portable camera loaded with his ambition and longing,  one of the brightest of his bright young generation of the 1920s, has become more famous, not less.

As we plough relentlessly into a 21st century that he anticipated in many ways, long before his death in 1980, I suspect ours is a world he would be as much horrified as impressed by.

I’ve penned a long but – it goes without saying – scintillating profile of the British photographer dandy Cecil Beaton for fashion and style mag Another Man‘s 15th anniversary issue. Guest-edited by the legendary and lovely Jo-Ann Furniss, other contributors include Paul Morely, Douglas Coupland and Chris Heath.

You can read my essay below:

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Beaton By Bailey, Lesbian Clip (1971)