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

Tag: book review (page 1 of 1)

Slit-Trenches & Eternal Comradeship

Mark Simpson totally relates to the author’s 1970s childhood war-fetish, but has to draw the line at Ernest Hemingway.

(Independent on Sunday, 31 March 2002)

Robert Twigger is a man who wins awards. The jacket of Being a Man… In The Lousy Modern World boasts of the Newdigate Prize for poetry, the Somerset Maugham Award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Perhaps this because Twigger is very talented, or perhaps it’s just because Twigger is the kind of man who wins awards.

Whatever the answer, despite ringing testimonials on the same jacket from those well-known gatekeepers of masculinity Will Self (‘a tour de force’) and Tony Parsons (‘I urge you to read everything that carries his name’) the one prize which Twigger’s been aiming for all his life – manhood – still eludes him.

Or as Leighton Bailey, Michael Horden’s fabulously starchy boss in the 1956 Rank film The Spanish Gardener says when firing him, ‘It’s as a man you’ve failed’. (As proof, Horden’s son has deserted him for his ‘Spanish’ gardener, Dirk Bogarde – yes Dirk Bogarde. In fake tan.). Of course, nowadays most men are ‘failures’ – but being manly is not now a very smart career move and most men under forty don’t seem to care whether they’ve failed as men or not, just so long as they win in the soft, sybaritic consumerist marketplace.

Mr Twigger however, does. Very much. Which is nice, but the real question is: should we care about Twigger?

Certainly Twigger’s evocatively recounted 1970s lower middle-class childhood is entirely familiar to me and probably millions of others: that odd emphasis on service and sacrifice, stoicism and stiffened upper lips, forever preparing to fight a war that ended thirty years previously. I too was an avid fan of The Colditz Story, The Guns of Navarone, Dambusters, Hotspur, Commando Comics, Victor, Dad’s Army and playing war in abandoned pillboxes. ‘Never mind the seventies,’ Twigger writes, ‘flower power, flared jeans and platform soled shoes; for me and my friends it was all war, war, war.’

Life forever presented itself as a test that might prove you wanting: ‘I never saw a river without imagining someone was drowning in it and waiting to be rescued, a railway track without working out how to save someone who had fallen in front of a moving train…’ Of course, it was a shining, virtuous childhood which laughably failed to prepare Twigger – or me – for the ‘lousy modern world’. Both of us would have been much better off with the platform shoes and flares the street-smart boys on The Estate wore.

If he’d lived in my village, Twigger and I would probably have been blood brothers for a few summers, covering the countryside with slit trenches and promises of eternal comradeship. But I suspect we would have drifted apart eventually, round about the time that I realised he didn’t have much of a sense of humour. Or maybe when he realised that I had a bit of an over developed one.

‘Being a Man’, we’re told, contrasts ‘twenty-four hours of “normality” in Robert Twigger’s suburban existence with half a lifetime of (mis) adventurous living’. In other words, bragging reminisces and whimsy about masculinity woven around a narrative of holding a barbecue and taking his wife to the hospital to have their first child.

Now, I don’t mind a bit of masculine bravado, but the ‘nasty scrapes’ the author has managed to get himself into, how if it hadn’t been for the adrenaline rush he wouldn’t have been able to haul himself back into the boat/onto that mountain ledge/confront that bull in Pamplona (yes, he really did go bullfighting) are, alas, mostly quite tedious. Several times Twigger mentions that his father was down the pub when he was born – but despite the fact that Twigger actually witnesses his son’s birth, with ‘Being a Man’ he somehow manages to be down the pub with the reader of his book, boring them to death with his tales of derring-do.

Twigger’s failure is a failure of self-consciousness, twice over. His masculinity is a failure because he’s always looking for the secret, the code,the instructions (hence a fascination with martial arts); but in a self-reflexive world this is to be forgiven. However his writing here fails because it’s not self-conscious enough; he doesn’t seem to realise how comically self-defeating that literal-mindedness is, or be able to diagnose his own malady, let alone anyone else’s. This is not forgivable, even without the constant invocation of that American granddaddy of twats Hemingway (and the‘lousy’ use of Americanisms throughout the book).

Twigger’s boyish Army obsession continued until he was sixteen; when he realised that the only people who wanted to join the army were either ‘misfits, gay… or teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.’ Yes, right, OK, but Robert I still don’t know why didn’t you join….

When Twigger finds himself in Mothercare he finds a part of his brain screaming that ‘BUYING NAPPIES IS STRICTLY FOR FAGS!’, an interesting response but one that is not analysed or even commented on. In a particularly risible passage he discusses at great length the story about Papa Doc’s encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Scotty complained that his dick was too small: Hemingway asked to see it and authoritatively pronounced it ‘normal sized’.

Twigger then advances an agonisingly torturous and entirely unnecessary argument that Hemingway worried about the size of his penis. Is Twigger the last person on Earth to have ‘twigged’ this? What’s clear is that Twigger has worried about the size of his penis – which is nothing to be ashamed of, especially in a book about masculinity – but he doesn’t tell us about it, instead he literally tries to put it in Papa Doc’s mouth. Not a pretty sight.

Speaking of which, in the gay world, afflicted as it is by far too much self-consciousness, there’s a term called ‘straight acting’. It’s supposed to denote ‘non-effeminate’ but unfortunately, unless the practitioner has a sense of humour, it too often merely denotes ‘a pain’. Alas, it would appear that this condition is not to be sexuality-specific. I have another award for the award-winning Mr Twigger: The Ernest Hemingway Award for Straight Acting Heterosexuality.

As Twigger writes himself: ‘What follows may be bollocks, so be warned.’ A commendable and very necessary warning.

Shame it doesn’t appear until page 121.

We’re Better at Everything, Mate: Australia’s Sports Complex

By Mark Simpson, Independent on Sunday (December 3, 2006)

We all know that Australians are better than us. Better looking, better at sport, better at partying, better at sex, better at reality TV shows. Mostly because they told us so. Very loudly.

Little wonder recent Government figures showed half the population of the UK is giving up on Britain and moving to Australia – while the other half is trying to become Australian by watching Neighbours or Kath and Kim or by wearing shorts and flip flops and drinking lager until they hurl. Even the UK’s version of Big Brother is clearly just a bunch of Brits pretending to be Australians living in a shared house in Willesden.  In this topsy-turvy, antipodean world, The Mother Country now wants nothing more than to be the Lucky Country. Mate.

But not everyone is completely open about their Ozspirations.  Richard Beard’s Manly Pursuits: beating the Australians (Yellow Jersey Press) is clearly about a nice, middle-class sporting Englishman’s quest to stop being English and become Australian – while pretending to research a book about why the Australians are so much better at sports than we are. But he doesn’t say this.  Instead he says he wants find out why the fifty-third most populated country is fourth in the medals table at the Athens Olympics – and always spanking our much more populous country’s puny, pale not-very-sporting bottom with a big, firm, sun-tanned hand.

So he travels to Manly, Australia (so named by Captain Arthur Philips because, Beard explains, of the manliness of the naked aborigines on the shore shouting ‘Go home whingeing Poms!’) and takes on the locals at bowls, shooting, golf, swimming, surfing, running and… pub quiz trivia. He mostly gets thrashed.  Even by pensioners and ladies. In between thrashings, he waxes lyrical about the strength and beauty of the sporting Australian male, compares and contrasts Oz and Brit culture (they’re great; we’re rubbish), and dips into some colonial history (they’re plucky; we’re just guilty). He of course, like most people, isn’t really interested in beating the Australians so much as joining them. Even if he hasn’t quite admitted it to himself.

I have to say that while Mr Beard is a good, thoughtful writer, and his book is certainly more fun than a game of rugby against Australians on steroids, I didn’t find his shameless Oz-worship something to smile about. But then, I’m very peculiar. You see, I don’t believe Australians are ‘better’ than us and certainly don’t want to become one.

Oh yes, I once shared Beard’s – and everyone else’s – enthusiasm for all things Australian. Raised on Skippy, Rolf Harris and swimwear catalogues I too yearned for a country where the sun shone all day everyday, where everyone was your mate, kangaroos could talk and ‘Speedos’ meant ‘Y-fronts’.

And then I visited Australia. And it quickly dawned on me that Australia, like Australian skin, is much better in long-shot. Australia is much more Australian from a distance. Close up, it’s just not really worth 24 hours of recirculated flu viruses, deep-vein thrombosis and Love Actually. It’s been left out in the sun too long.

There is though one thing that Australians are indubitably good at: selling Australia. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising since they run the world’s media. Oh, and, sorry, all the best-looking Australians we’ve seen already – either in their visiting rugby teams, their TV soaps, the Hollywood movies they hog, or in the Escort section at the back of gay mags. Leaving behind those hit with the ugly didgeridoo to mind the Barbie.

OK, so they are actually better at sport. Beard comes up with some reasons why. These are: the weather, booze (if you’re an Australian social club the easiest way to get a license is to organise ‘sporting activities’ – so playing sport in Oz is quite literally a way to get drunk), the weather again, all that meat in the diet, and the German Democratic Republic. Apparently Australia slavishly copied the GDR’s hugely successful centralised approach to Olympic sports in the 1970s. And, I’d like to think, for much the same reason: both were tiny countries that everyone was leaving that desperately needed some good PR.

Oh, and: homosexuality. ‘Sport allows men to stare, in detail, without homosexuality alleged or feared,’ Beard explains. ‘Especially in swimming, where in this all-male club bodies are straining, on their fronts, buttocks up, naked, except for tiny lycra Speedos. It’s surely nothing but coincidence that everyone’s favourite words are “mate” and “fuck”.’

Now, I’ve always wanted to believe that Australian sportsmen and their Speedo-clad butts are gagging for it – or rather me – but now I can cite Beard, someone I presume is happily heterosexual, in case any Oz sportsman dares to disagree.

I though have a crazy hunch that, lycra fetishism aside, the main reason why Australians are better than us at sport is because they don’t hate themselves.

Beard’s oh-so-English self-deprecation, amusing for a while, does end up sounding like self-hatred (though when he really lets rip, as he does at the cringeworthy Mike Atherton for example, he can rise to dazzlingly spiteful poetry). On the perennial Republican campaigns to redesign, i.e. de-Brit, the Australian flag he offers: ‘My own idea is to shrink the Union Jack in the corner of the existing flag by half a centimetre each year. No one will notice, and in twenty years it’ll be gone.’

This seems to be Beard’s and much of today’s English middle-class’ attitude towards their own identity. They hope their embarrassing, awkward, damp, guilt-ridden Englishness will just wither away unnoticed and one day they’ll wake up something innocent, tanned, laid-back and athletic with a swimming pool and actually be able to barbecue meat without sending people to hospital.

Sorry cobbers, it ain’t gonna happen. Australians have got not use for self-hating whingeing poms and their whimsical self-mutilating sense of humour.  They’re too busy telling the world how great it is to be Australian. And conquering it.

Sorry, Bono, You’re Too Doubting – why Xstian rock is going to Hell (in a handbasket)

Body_piercing.jpgby Mark Simpson

(Independent on Sunday, 27 August 2006)

Americans are insane.

The proof? Well, there’s a host of clinical evidence confirming this self-satisfied Old World view of New World nuttiness, from the invasion of Iraq to American Football – which looks much like the invasion of Iraq, but less conclusive and with more pom-poms.

However, the real clincher, the cast-iron proof for us that our colonial cousins are mad as soft cheese past its sell-by is the way so many of them can’t stop shouting about mysweetlordjesuschrist! and how He diedonthecrossformeee! And that’s just their President. Americans are at their bug-eyed barmiest when they are banging on about Gawd. After all, everyone knows that He is actually British and hence he doesn’t like to make a fuss.

But Americans at their fruitiest are also usually at their most entertaining. At least from a safe, smug distance. How many mediocre media careers on this side of the Atlantic have been made out of pointing at yonder Yankee craziness and smirking? Which reminds me, here’s another example: Christian rock music. It’s booming, apparently. Christian rock bands such as Mute Math and Resurrection Band are selling faster than hot cross buns and almost as fast as, well, sin – along with a whole “spiritual” parallel pop culture Universe of “extreme teen Bibles”, skateboarding ministries, Christian tattoo parlors, Christian coffee houses and nightclubs. Hey dude! Being Christian is, like, way cool! Look, man, my bitchin’ skateboard is made from the Cross of Jesu!

Perhaps because he’s an American living in America, Andrew Beaujon, author of Body Piercing Saved My Life (a piously punning slogan on T-shirts popular with Christian rock fans), isn’t smirking, though his wife seems worried.

“My wife is British,” writes Beaujon. “And it kind of freaks her out how vocal people here are about their faith, but I love it. There’s something so beautifully American about this country’s crazy-quilt religious landscape, where you can find a hundred different views of God within a five-minute walk.” Well, yes, “crazy-quilt” sounds about right. Though I wonder how fast he’s walking, and what kind of population density there is in his neighbourhood.

Beaujon of course doesn’t mean the word “crazy” in the way that you or I might. He may not, unlike the vast majority of his fellow Americans, believe in God, and I suspect he’s something of a liberal, but he seems, like our liberal RE teacher premier Tony Blair, to believe very much in religion. Richard Dawkins might never forgive me for saying this, but he does have a point. America may have given the world a very secular pop culture, but America itself is anything but secular. God may be dead in the Old World, or at least living in a retirement bungalow in Rottingdean, but in the New World he’s going skateboarding – and running the country.

The “craziness” of American religiosity, the “legion” of millenarian voices in America’s head that helped build that great country, and to make Americans as optimistic and generous, as spontaneous, as creative, as industrious and as weird and as finally unknowable as they are is not something that should be smirked at. Probably. Without it, American secular culture – like rock music – wouldn’t be what it is and we in Britain would still be buying skiffle records. So it’s perhaps not so strange that non-believer Beaujon, a writer at Spin magazine, would want to “celebrate” America’s religious mania in its musical form. Especially since, as he points out, no one else has written a book about Christian rock before – and, being economically realistic (the flip-side to American religious psychosis), believers are most likely to buy it.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed in making it sound very appealing. I don’t know what it’s actually like to attend a Christian rock concert, or chat to Christian rock stars, or to be saved for that matter, but reading about it is perfectly hellish. When it isn’t so tedious that it makes you want to recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards.

Beaujon’s “accentuate the positive” ethos may be very American, it may be shrewd, but it’s a literary and critical disaster of near-Biblical proportions. It’s only two thirds of the way through the book when writing about “worship music”, a praisethelord! genre of Christian music strictly for the already converted, (which, if I was the Lord, would incline me send a plague of toads and locusts by return heavenly post) that he allows himself to say something nasty – something worth reading:

“Worship tunes tend to evince an adolescent theology, one that just can’t get over how darn cool it is that Jesus sacrificed himself for the world,” he writes. “Our God is an awesome God.” “O Lord, you are glorious.” “How can it be? That you, a king, would die for me?”‘

The problem for Beaujon and for Christian rock is that that while, yes, quite a few of the people buying Christian rock in the US are not that Christian, and some Christian bands are not without critical merit, essentially all Christian rock (as opposed to rock made by Christians) is by definition a form of worship music, when it’s not screeching about how gay marriage is legalised bestiality and abortion is a holocaust. All monotheistic religious belief is slightly adolescent – my daddy is bigger than yours. Of course, rock music is itself very adolescent (praise God), but the point is that “proper” rock music doesn’t pretend to be grown up and respectable and going to heaven. Unless you’re U2.

Actually, as Beaujon points out, U2 are banned by Christian radio stations because of their “doubting” lyrics – and Bono’s criticism of grasping American tele-evangelists. Though they will play cover versions of their songs. And that, I’m afraid, despite Beaujon’s protests, is what Christian rock seems to be: a lame cover-version of the real thing. One that for all its piety, strangely lacks conviction.

In the end – or at the last trumpet – the problem is that Christian rock isn’t bonkers enough. It’s too wordly. It’s Christian consumerism: a holier-than-thou but essentially second-rate XstianTM lifestyle.