Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Why is an iPod like a clitoris?

No, don’t worry, it’s not another anti-technology rant (1), instead I want to talk about language. In particular I want to look at how our perception of what is and isn’t acceptable has changed and what that means for the use of rude words in writing.

I don’t really want to get into language as a tool to incite hatred, deliberate or otherwise. It’s, surely, a given truth that this is unacceptable, that we should not, ever, use our words to derogatorily distinguish between people on the basis of race, sexuality, gender or, well anything. Anything that a) is something that people just are, that they have no control over and b) doesn’t affect anybody else anyway so why are we making an issue out of it? However, if someone’s just being an arse don’t we have the right to tell them as such?

Personally, I feel that it does us all good to have a vehement swear every so often. It allows us to blow off steam, to release our frustrations verbally - far better than to do so physically. These days we’re allowed to, attitudes have become more relaxed after the over-tightening of the moral belt in the post-Second World War years.

The first “fuck” appeared on British TV in 1965. It took another eight years for it to slip out again. Both times it cost people their jobs. Television bosses took it as seriously as the wrongful naming of a cat. It was a further thirty-six months until the Sex Pistols were goaded by Bill Grundy into saying it three times (plus a couple of “shits”) in as many minutes (2). The red tops were furious - “The Filth & The Fury!” ran the Mirror’s headline - damming them for allegedly corrupting a whole generation with a few little words. In the meantime significant events took place around the world. The following year a Nottingham record shop was prosecuted under the Indecent Displays Act for displaying the band’s album Never Mind the Bollocks. Frankly hadn’t the Crown Prosecution Service got better things to be doing?

We’ve come a long way in thirty years and swearing is now an integral part of everyday television, radio and cinema, fully accepted and endorsed. Everyone uses it, they always have done, so why censor something you can hear on every street? On this coming Friday a band called Fuck Button are playing the Forum in Highgate (3). There’s hardly a single drama, comedy or reality TV show on after nine or a film rated 12 or above that doesn’t include at least one “fuck”. If it’s on earlier in the evening it is simply, inexpertly, bleeped out. What is the point of “f-bip-ck”? Am I not supposed to understand what you’re saying?

So we can say anything: Shit, arse, wank, bastard, prick and nobody takes offensive. Except we can’t. There is still one word at which a high proportion of the population is guaranteed to be upset by.

Warren Ellis, writing a dramatisation of the fourteenth century battle of Crecy has the narrator helpfully inform the reader: “There’s one word you’ll have to get used to. Cunt. This is a word that many people do not like. But you have to understand the English. In England, the word cunt is punctuation.” (4) He’s exaggerating for comic effect, but the sentiment remains true. It’s an old, old word, so why - when pretty much everything else goes - does it still cause such offence amongst some people? Why, when I am at a party in May this year and I refer to someone whom nobody else has met as such, does a woman, not even involved in the conversation, come over and tell me not to use the word around her? Why is it that at the company I used to work for the office manager who could make a marine blush with her language would not tolerate the word being uttered in her presence? Why is it when equivalent euphemisms for both genders’ organs (twat, fanny, cock, nob, prick) are so commonly used that cunt still shocks? (5)

Is it because we instinctively draw a boundary somewhere for fear of what would happen if there was none?

In terms of actual swearing it’s a good word. It’s short, has an angular sound, it can be used as a noun or as a verb. This is all good for elaborate, creative and angry swearing.
Here’s an interesting diversion: I don’t think I’ve ever, in anger, called somebody a (pick your own expletive), to their face. Jokingly yes, “oo - you bugger, you’re such an arse,” or whatever. I like to take my frustrations out on inanimate objects - “tosspot toaster”, “crappy coffee maker”, “bastard bread maker” (6). They’re not ever going to be offended by my torrent of abuse. I lost count of the number of times I’ve hung the phone up at work and muttered “bastard”, but if they can’t hear me, then they can’t know. And anyway, am I really, truly, insulting their parentage or am I just releasing my own pressure gauge?

Recently in my more calm and serene state of mind I’ve been looking at it from the other side of the coin.

I take great care not to swear around my nephew (7) or, indeed, any children. I’ve never been asked to, but I just feel I ought to, not least because most of the words have meanings I don’t want to have to explain. That’s what parents are for. I used to work with a guy for whom elaborate swearing was an art form he took great pleasure in. How he held his tongue at home with two young children I shall never know, but he did. The language used was one of the things that distinguished his home life from his working life. It’s good to show restraint, only using the words when strictly necessary. It allows them to retain some sort of power.

From a writer’s point of view if every third word is a swear word then how can I use them to express a character’s mood, or how can I introduce a “fuck” for dramatic effect if the pages are already littered with expletives? Repetition deadens the effect. It worked for the Sex Pistols as an angry, young band rallying against the establishment in 1976. It’s not really worked for anyone since.

A couple of examples of how swearing is perhaps becoming institutionalised: The Guardian (bastion of middle-class leftyism that it is) runs a celeb questionnaire, where all the questions are song titles and until recently included “Who The Fuck Are The Artic Monkeys?” A lightning quick scan through Saturday’s supplements give me four “shits”, four “fucks” and one each for “bastard”, “crap”, “cock”, “piss” and “tit”. Remember there’s no age restriction on the purchase of newspapers (8).

I certainly don’t think we need to cut out swearing, that movies should resort to the cut-off sentence (“Why I oughta…”) or a watered down version of English (“you’re such a brute!”), but perhaps it should be returned to a more violent context. That way when I tell someone he’s a “fucking bastard who deserves to have his cock chopped off and then buggered to death with it”, he’ll know I really mean it.

(1) Although it has just occurred to me that someone should probably point out that Apple isn’t the caring, benevolent organisation a lot of it’s fans seem to think it is.
(2) It was guitarist Steve Jones who launched into the rant. I’ve always liked his final shout of “what a fucking rotter” as Grundy lecherously asks Siouxsie Sioux to meet him after the show. A kind of hybrid of punk and the Beano.
(3) According to the Guardian Guide anyway, I’ve never heard of them.
(4) Warren Ellis (w) / Raulo Caceras (a), Crecy (Avatar Press, 2007)
(5) That’s not to say all women find it unacceptable. I was delighted to hear a female friend of mine recently refer to someone as “Fat Dave The Cunt.”
(6) Don’t worry I don’t have a complex about electrical kitchen goods, I just happen to be staring into the kitchen whilst I write this.
(7) Okay, so as the son of Beck’s sister and her husband he’s not technically my nephew, but as the only thing that really separates me from uncle-hood is sixteen thousand pounds and a lecture from a bloke in a dress, I’m going with it.
(8) I’m not even going into the issue of the Daily and Sunday Sport. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. Text 8163 to see Britney’s flaps, indeed.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

OK Computer

Sometimes the machines speak to me. If I let my guard down I can hear them whispering, their voices are like the sound of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard somewhere in the back of my brain. They don’t say nice things. They laugh and mock and jeer. For they know that I don’t understand how they work and yet I am completely reliant on them.

This latest batch of paranoia is, essentially, Thom Yorke’s fault. Radiohead are releasing their new album as a download only. There are elements to this attitude that I thoroughly applaud - in particular the pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth option and, to a lesser extent, my inner-socialist likes the removal of the giant, faceless, music corporations. But, I am a download virgin and I’m not sure if Radiohead are really the band I want to pop my cherry with. I suspect that if I were to have a couple of glasses of wine, dim the electric lights, burn some incense, eat a couple of oysters then I could probably get myself in the mood. Loosen myself up as it were. But after the deed were done, after I had listened to the album all the way through, I think that I would feel a little dirty. A little used, as though I should have waited for a band I really cared about, one with whom I might have had a future, rather than the more experienced, seedy old men who picked me up unsuspecting one night - promised great things and then spunked it all instantly.

There’s a few things to consider here before jumping on the bandwagon proudly proclaiming the new musical revolution. Radiohead aren’t, by any stretch, the only group publishing music in this way, but they are by far the biggest band to so to date - and the only reason that they are so big, the only reason that they can indulge in such an experiment without really caring about the financial outcome, is because the big, nameless, faceless, evil music corporations made them millionaires in the nineties. I understand that they’ll also be signing up to a smallish label later in the year and releasing a CD version in early 2008 anyway which makes the whole thing smell like a publicity stunt. Oh, irony of ironies. Radiohead make such a big deal of eschewing publicity (no singles, no formal promotion of albums, etc, etc since OK Computer) but the very doing of which makes them notorious.

When everyone knows who you are it’s impossible to be perceived as doing something without some sort of an agenda.

Downloading is relatively pointless at the moment. I don’t own an iPod, or any other form of MP3 player, and for the foreseeable future I don’t intend to. And here’s why:

Sound Quality: Anytime someone’s shoved a pair of those crappy white ear plugs into my hands and told me to listen to the sound of gibbons banging on banjos, or whatever the hell it is, then it just sounds rubbish. The music is overpowered by a haunting hiss like a particularly small viper trying to clamber into your ear drum to nest and lay her eggs. I presume that if you’re happy to look like a member of the ground crew on an aircraft carrier protecting their tender ears from a jet stream you can correct this problem. Either that or there’s a surprisingly number of people out there happy to look like a berk.

Singles versus Albums: The whole point of downloading is that it encourages you to cherry-pick the songs you most want to listen to (I know that Radiohead are only allowing you to download the whole album, but I’m speaking more generally here.) I, personally, am a great fan of listening to complete albums from start to finish as they were intended by the artist. Beck always used to infuriate me by hitting the shuffle button on her stereo. There’s a reason why songs are sequenced in a particular order. Train in Vain at the end of the Clash’s London Calling is a fantastic example. As the bass hook kicks in it only sounds so fresh and exhilaratingly pop because it follows a few seconds after Joe Strummer’s last desperate, ragged cry at the end of Revolution Rock. At first you think the band are defeated, exhausted by the recording of the album that they’re unable to continue, but then - no - there’s final track which sounds like they’re not only defiant but completely rejuvenated. The two songs have to go next to each other and they only work so exceptionally well at the end of such an epic album.

Album Art: The importance of a great cover image is being completely lost in the digital age. The cover can add so much to a really great album. Again, the image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass in concert, with the lettering a deliberate homage to the first Elvis album adds to the mystique of London Calling. Or the detail in the Pogues doctoring Gericault’s Le Radeau de la Medusa with their own faces for the cover of Rum, Sodomy And The Lash. Brilliant. I understand that some iPods now flash up the album art for the song playing, but come on - you can’t get across a strong image on something the size of my thumbnail. You wouldn‘t even be able to see that Paul’s not wearing any shoes on the cover of Abbey Road. For that matter, art doesn’t really work on CDs either. We should be buying 12” vinyl packaging with a smaller disc inside.

The same goes for sleeve notes. My copy of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme includes a fantastic article by Ravi Coltrane, his son and also a respected musician. I wouldn’t have got that from iTunes.

Trousers: I’m already carrying a wallet, travel card, keys and a mobile phone. If I start sticking an iPod in as well then I’m only going to be able to wear enormous skater pants. Which just aren’t suitable for every social occasion.

Plus there’s the actual physical fear I get from the idea of putting all six hundred or so of my CDs onto the damn thing. It would take years by which time it’ll probably be obsolete anyway.
So, you’ve got six billion songs on something the size of credit card - what happens if you spill beer over it, drop it down the toilet or the dog eats it. At the same time your computer contracts a virus which wipes its hard drive. It’s all gone. Okay, so you could get burgled and lose your stereo and album collection that way, but, I don’t know… The whole digital set-up just seems much more fragile to me.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this in depth is that I think my CD player might be dying. I love that stereo system and I don’t want to have to replace it, but everyone so often it stalls in the middle of a record and makes a dubious thunking sound. It’s not a disaster, after all the real money’s gone into the amp and the speakers, but I’ve been trying to work out whether it was a good investment or not. I bought it in September 2002 (or thereabouts). I probably listen to music for an average of four hours a day. That’s on a basis of coming in at seven in the evening and not bothering to put another album on after eleven. It works as a reasonable average because there’s nights I don’t come in at all, or I might watch a film or the football, but against that there are days where I’ve got up at seven-thirty, popped some early morning music on and then not turned it off until one in the morning. So, four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year over five years equals seven thousand three hundred hours of listening (or taking an average record to be fifty minutes nine thousand seven hundred albums). Or one point five pence for every hour it’s been used. Definitely better than an iPod.

I’ve always been resistant to technological innovations. I didn’t actually get a CD player until 1996. Before then I was happy with tapes. I went through my entire BA without sending an email or using the Internet - I had to teach myself how to use both when I finally got a proper job in the summer of 2001. I held out on getting a mobile phone until December 2002 and even now I just want the bloody thing to be a telephone not take photos, organise my life for me and make a cup of tea. Broadband only got installed in August. We only got a DVD player because Beck needed one for an exhibition - officially it is the art DVD player and every so often it absconds for a few weeks to be in a show.

Jamie was round a few weeks ago and one of the first things he said was; “my God, is that a VHS player?”

“Yeah,” I replied cautiously.

“It’s, like, an antique.”

“How are you supposed to tape things of the TV, then?” I argued defensively.

“SkyPlus it.” I have no idea what that is. I have a suspicion it may involved Noddy Holder in bed, but that might just be a bad dream. In 2010, or whenever it is that analogue TV switches off in London, I’m going to be like one of the little old ladies in Whitehaven last week staggering around in confusion asking just what the hell digital TV is.

Do I care? Am I happy to be lagging ten years behind the rest of my generation? I don’t know, perhaps. I’m happy to learn how to use things which become useful tools (this blog for example - it enables me to rant without restraint and then leave a record in the public domain. Very liberating.) But I’m determined not to follow technological fashion trends for the sake of it. I don’t want to sit on the tube watching the last night’s episode of the latest ropey American imported television show on a screen surgically implanted into my palm. Radiohead be damned. Hail To The Thief was crap anyway.

I think the computer is laughing at me. It knows from the way I’m interfacing with it that I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing. It knows where I’m vulnerable and how it can screw up my life. It starts with a low chuckle from within the C drive before surging through the whole system and erupting across the monitor as a high pitched maniacal cackle. Good job I can always pull the plug out.

Shit, forgot about the battery pack.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Snap - who's got the power?

There isn’t going to be a general election, then. All the excitement was created either by inexperienced and aroused cabinet ministers who rapidly backtracked when the Conservatives unexpectedly surged in the polls, an act of woeful indecision and poor leadership skills by the new Prime Minister who rapidly backtracked, etc, or something whipped up by otherwise bored media hacks. It, as always, all depends on whose opinion you are most willing to trust.

The fact that the election isn’t going to happen after all is both a good and a bad thing. It’s bad because as it was looking pretty inevitable I had started mulling over three politically themed blogs. You’ll just have to wait for my musings on political ideology and for a character assassination of David Cameron and George Osborne. However, you’re just going to have to sit through this one. It is a good thing because snap elections rarely have the expected or even desirable outcome - especially for the people who actually do the voting. An election, any election, will bring out of the woodwork a vast number of political commentators scrambling for an appearance fee, all of whom will claim to have the best perspective on the predicted outcome. I’m not a political commentator. I don’t claim anything. Any opinion I give is likely to be woefully informed and bias to my own moral compass. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be stopping me forcing it upon you.

First up, there simply isn’t the need for an Autumn election. There’s a lot of talk about giving Brown a mandate from the people, but this is complete tosh. Brown already has a mandate - it’s called a working majority of sixty-six in the Commons. The British democratic system does not elect Prime Ministers. We vote in the party that we feel has the values and the policies that we, as individuals, most agree with. We then trust that the group of people we have given the power to run our lives have the ability to choose the most suitable amongst them to be leader.

Okay, so in recent years Blair may have been day-dreaming of a presidential-style government and we may have been sub-consciously associating Labour with those frequently displayed teeth, but in 2005 it was at least made plain to the electorate that he was unlikely to serve a full third term. (I’m sure that given the choice he would have loved to have stayed on indefinitely - but that’s another issue.) So anyone who thinks we should go to the ballot box to confirm Brown’s status as leader is wrong. We have chosen the party of government; they, albeit rather meekly, have chosen the man.

We are not, thank Christ, fully into a world of David Cameron’s Conservatives politics just yet (outside of Ealing) - where the person speaking is more important than what is actually being said.

Besides, there’s no precedence for it. It didn’t happen when Major took over from Thatcher in 1990; or when Callaghan succeeded Wilson in 1976; Douglas-Home from MacMillan in 1963; MacMillan himself from Eden in 1957. In fact the only time it has happened is when Eden took over from Churchill in 1955, but as this was late into the fourth year of a term it was hardly surprising.

Of course it could be argued that these successions of power were under drastically different circumstances to that of 2007. In the main they were forced by occasion rather than following a pre-ordained plan. They were much more akin to coup d’etats where for various reasons the previous leader needed to be disposed of. The problems range from disastrous ill-advised and probably illegal wars on foreign countries (Eden), scandal (MacMillan), megalomania (Thatcher) and levels of paranoia verging on downright bonkersness (Wilson). H’mm, actually all of these could be applied to Blair.

No matter the spin applied, make no mistake, Blair did not jump. He was pushed. Prime Ministers, unsurprisingly, once given power are rarely keen to relinquish it. They usually need to have it torn from their sweaty little mitts either by the voters marking an X in the box for the opposition or, more commonly, by a knife in the back from their colleagues.

The Churchill-Eden change-over may seem relatively calm, but Churchill, having suffered a hushed-up stroke, was clearly becoming too old and mad to govern - MacMillan apparently once went to his office to find him in bed, covered in papers with a budgie called Toby perched on his head. But Churchill had privately anointed Eden as heir apparent back in 1942. Thirteen years of waiting in the wings. Pretty much the same length of time Brown has waited. Of course, Churchill had a war to win and then spent five years in opposition.

Interestingly, although not unsurprisingly, only Menzies Campbell* seemed to not be looking forward to an election. I saw an interview with Campbell (on ITN, I think) where he dismissed the question of a suitable date suggesting that we should have a fixed term government of four years anyway which would mean that none of this silliness would ever happen. Nice one, Menzies. What happens when we have a hung parliament? It’s only been in the past twenty years that the size of your majority has been something to brag about. What would happen if the days of a majority of thirty (1970) were to return? Or even, five (1950), four (1960) or just three (1974 - second time around)? The country would spend four years in political paralysis, grinding ever slower to a complete standstill waiting for the term to expire and give someone, anyone, at least a chance of actually getting anything done.

It is in these occasions of unworkable majorities that early or snap elections are called. Two occasions stand out, however, where the results were not only unexpected, but they led to disaster beyond Westminster for a lot of voters.

Thatcher was expected to go for a full first term in office, but surprised many by calling an election early in 1983. Thanks largely to her popularity riding on a high due to a surge in misguided imperialistic pride after victory in Falklands the Tories swept into power with a majority of one hundred and forty-four. It was as though most of the electorate forgot what her policies actually were and were just mesmerised by the image of action woman in a tank. The result gave the country a further fourteen years of Tory government and whilst a small minority did very, very well out of the eighties, for the vast majority of people things were to get a hell of lot worse before they got better.

Similarly in 1970 Wilson went early hoping to wrong-foot the opposition. It didn’t work and Labour were back in opposition and in the Prime Minister’s office was Edward Heath. Under his premiership Britain became a Western first world country facing wholesale national strikes and the indignity of being forced into a three day week. Here we can see the beginnings of the political, economic and industrial joke that was Britain for the best part of two decades.
Incompetent or dangerous people get into power when the voting populace are surprised by a change in the normal pattern of a May election every four or five years. And there’s enough of those hovering in the wings at Westminster. Is it really worth the risk?

Of course following a battering at PMQ, grumblings from former Blair favourites consigned to the back benches, accusations of incompetence and unsuccessful attempts at positive spin and Brown is beginning to resemble John Major. Perhaps New Labour is going to tear itself apart (then what happens? Post-Labour? Nu-Labour?) which in itself is no bad thing. It’s good for us to change our rulers more frequently than every twenty years. After all, that’s the point of voting for them rather than there being a law of succession. It means we’re, supposedly, not stuck with them when they’ve become old, senile and prone for falling asleep during important meetings. It should also mean we don’t get saddled with over-excitable youngsters driven by their loins.

I just hope that by 2009 somebody, somewhere will be offering a viable alternative.

* This article was written on Sunday. Ming, as you will know, resigned on Monday. I thought about taking this part out - but I like the point about hung parliaments so it stayed. So, the Liberals are leaderless again. Bring back Good Time Charlie Kennedy - it’s always fun to watch people so befuddled by gigantic quantities of alcohol that they can’t understand their own policies.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Deja Vu

Finally, after several months of nervous anticipation and general lifestyle upheaval I have my first actual seminars at Goldsmiths. The week before I went into the University on two mornings, once to register and pay my fees and once to find out who my tutor would be, get a copy of the timetable and other general “welcome” activities where they give the impression that you‘re actually getting something for the huge amount of money you‘ve just signed over. However, it just didn’t feel real yet. It was though I’d wandered into the wrong building by mistake and nobody had noticed.

On both occasions I was going into work straight afterwards and was consequently probably the only person in the whole building wearing a suit. On my student ID card I look surprisingly respectable. It’s a long way from the long-haired, trench coat wearing youth with his eyes obscured by dark glasses on my undergraduate card. That felt more like how a student should look. Still, at least it’s better than the card I’ve been issued with for my temp job which inexplicably has a picture of a middle-aged black woman called Margaret on it.

But today is the real deal. I’m dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. My trainers have a rip in them that is from wear and tear rather than fashion. My battered old leather jacket could be worn by pretty much any student in the world. I haven’t bothered to shave. I look the part. I walk down to the college despite having a bus pass (and indeed a car) because I‘ve always gone to lectures by foot. When I overtake the stationary bus at Brockley Cross I feel somewhat smug.
I arrive slightly early because I want to get a council tax rebate form from the admissions office (which is shut), drop my contact details off with the department administrator because I’d forgotten my passport sized photo last week (she’s not in yet) and get an application to become a student ambassador (she’s off ill). Frustrated I decide to just wander around for a bit and get a feel for the place.

It’s surprisingly busy for nine-forty in the morning. The campus here is pretty compact - there’s just the three main buildings, of which one is predominately staff offices, plus the library. This tends to concentrate all the students in the same areas and walking along the corridors of the main building a sense of calm and contentment creeps through me. I was incredibly happy as a student last time around and this feels really comfortable.

I decide to do a couple of stereotypically student things and look at the notice boards advertising for band members even though I sold by bass years ago. I check the politics society for upcoming talks and am disappointed to see that the only debate seems to be whether the BNP should be chucked off Facebook or not.

It’s all coming back to me. I’ve got the student slouch and shuffle going on. Stepping out the back of the main building I smile to myself remembering the barbecue we held here at end of the third year when an inflatable sex doll became stuck in a tree. Later a gust of wind blew it free to land next to that (what’s her name?) Scandinavian woman’s toddler. It landed provocatively exposing it’s various orifices but unsurprisingly got no response whatsoever from the child.

I stop to have a pre-seminar piss. The last time I was in these particular set of toilets I urinated to the sounds of that camp lad (Alex?) being violently sick after drinking more than he sold at the private view bar he was supposed to be helping me run. Coming out I half-expect to bump into people I haven’t seen for years. I can hear the click of heels coming up behind me and I turn thinking that it’ll be Shonad in her ridiculous shoes and inappropriately short skirt about to burst in hyena-esque cackling with Sarah or perhaps Lene. It isn’t of course.

I’m in the queue at Loafers’ CafĂ© when reality slams into me and mentally throws me clear across the room.

These aren’t my memories.

I never studied at Goldsmiths. I went to Sheffield a good 200 miles away. My brain seems to have hijacked someone else’s past and is now trying to rewrite my own. Still reeling I pay for my coffee and stagger along to the seminar. The sensation is bizarre, to say the least, as my own history struggles to reassert itself over these false memories.

I feel like I’m becoming detached from my physical environment. It’s like I’ve smoked an enormous bong or drunk half a bottle of brandy for breakfast. Yes specifically brandy. It’s like when you get incredibly drunk yet retain a heightened state of awareness. I think my eyeballs might pop.

My heart starts to slow down as I reach the second floor. Fortunately, they’ve moved the art department. I think if I’d had to walk through a load of art studios my brain would completely overload and then shut down. Now there are just bland offices - the artists have been decamped down to a purpose built building. Regrettably the building looks nothing like Will Alsop’s original drawings which just showed the New Cross road with a dog wearing sunglasses and a dress going into the local branch of Iceland. Instead there’s just a box with high windows and a sign on top that says, unimaginatively, “Goldsmiths,” but looks like a strong wind would bring it crashing down on top of the pedestrians below.

By the time I find the room where my seminar is due to start I am beginning to feel normal again. I’m still slightly early, but then so, it seems, is virtually everyone else. We stand and chatter for a few minutes. The tutor arrives and we re-arrange to room layout away from that of a 1970s style primary school classroom. We realise that there are actually too many people here and send the three people who are uninvited extras on their way.

The seminar starts with introductions going clockwise around the table. Looking at people’s faces I think that I know at least three of the people already. Or do I? I’m pretty certain I recognise them, but I’ve no idea what their names could be. The name Alice springs into my mind when I look at the girl opposite. Have I ever known an Alice? Perhaps I’ve just seen her on the train, perhaps she just look like someone’s sister? Perhaps I’ve just invented them all? Perhaps none of this happening. Perhaps I’m still asleep and I’ve just been dreaming everything. Getting up, leaving the house, walking down to college - it’s all yet to happen. How the hell am I supposed to know what’s real and what’s just my imagination?

I suddenly realise that everyone is staring at me. It’s clearly my turn to introduce myself. I wonder how long they’ve been waiting for me to speak. I open my mouth, but I think I’ve forgotten my name.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Naked (Sunday) Lunch

So. I’ve been thinking about nudity a lot recently. This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that my girlfriend is several thousands of miles away, but I feel that I’ve been thinking about it in a more intellectual sense; that I’ve been questioning our notions of respectability; why do we consider clothing essential - you know, aside from practical reasons such as warmth, protection, etc? You wouldn’t want to use a soldering iron naked. Are we as a nation just a load of prudes and should we, perhaps, embrace a more Germanic approach towards unashamedly exposing ourselves in public?

I’ll tell you why this has been on my mind. Back in July Beck and I went to meet my parents one Saturday morning in Buckinghamshire. It was warm, but not hot. A pleasant summer day. We exited the M40 at junction 10 where there is always a queue of traffic as it works through a series of roundabouts linking the motorway, the A43 and the services. A couple of cars ahead of us, in the left hand lane, is a battered old BMW from which a long, male and bare arm lazily hangs out of the window.

“Look,” I said slightly bored by our lack of movement, “that bloke’s got his shirt off. Wouldn’t have thought it was that warm.” As we slowly edged alongside them I glanced to my left for no other reason than sheer nosiness. And then I looked again. Yep. Definitely boobs in that car. His wife-girlfriend-female companion was also topless.

Fortunately the traffic was very, very slow and my observation led to a debate as to whether they were merely topless or were, in fact, completely naked. I decided to try and find out. I slowed right down so we were level again and pounding along at about 3 miles an hour. Beck refused to participate so I raised myself out of my seat and tried to peer over the crest of their door.

Unfortunately I couldn’t tell either way, but I did get clocked trying to gawp. The guy laughed; the girl initially blushed and looked away, but then scowled. Hell, she’s the one with her baps out in the middle of a traffic jam - what does she expect? But I suspect that this reaction means that they were indeed starkers.

All sorts of things ran through my mind: How had they got into the car from their house? Perhaps they had undressed in the car, if so why? How were they going to get out of the car? Were they going to some secret Oxfordshire society of exhibitionists meeting? I considered trying to follow them but managed to loose them at the very first roundabout and so instead we ventured on to a join my folks for a fully clothed afternoon.

Naked people, however, keep cropping up in my life at the moment. We went on holiday to Croatia recently. Now we had tried to go before, back in 2003 I think, but had been unable to find a campsite that wasn’t nudist. Using our very slow dial-up internet connection we were logging onto websites and saying things like, “oo that’s a fantastic location, right by the beach. Look it says ‘welcome’ in English. This picture’s downloading slowly. Oh, great, a penis.” We went to Sicily instead, endured temperatures in the high thirties and didn’t sleep for a week.

The campsites in 2007 involved more clothing, but nudism is still big business in Croatia. I mainly blame the huge number of Germans for whom exposing yourself in the Summer is as normal as women shaving their armpits (oh, no, hang on a minute, that comparison doesn’t work). For me, though, the idea of getting my nob out in strong sunlight just makes we wince with pain.

Nudism seems to have a code of etiquette, although I’m not sure how it works. There’s almost a set of unwritten rules and I was worried about getting caught out. For example, we were staying on the Peljesac Peninsula, near Dubrovnik. Having been busy for most of the morning we drove down to a tiny village of Zuljana which my Rough Guide said had nice beaches for an afternoon swim. The book recommended venturing beyond the village to more isolated coves, but warned that the decision as to whether these coves were nudist or not depended on who arrived first. As we descended down the slopes, through the trees to the beach, we were a little concerned as to what was waiting for us. It was fortunately a clothed site. I wonder, though, what would happen if a nudist and a clothist (for want of a better phrase) were to arrive simultaneously. How would you know how far to go? Would they begin preparing for a day at the beach normally; laying out towels, finding a book, taking off their shirt all the while keeping one eye on the other person to check how much was on show. Who would win? Would the clothist be scared off by the sight of pubic hair or would the nudist be reluctant to inflict their genitals on the innocent?

Incidentally, I’m calling them clothists, but there is often very little clothing involved. Nearly-nude people would be more appropriate. Being topless was pretty common and the bottom parts of swimming costumes were pretty skimpy. In fact it seemed that, as a man, the fatter (and probably more Germanic) you are the smaller, tighter and usually redder your speedos are.

Croatia also boasts the world’s biggest nudist campsite at a place called Polari, just outside Rovinj - a place we inadvertently found ourselves outside. We’d taken the wrong turn, honestly, but Beck recognised the name instantly. “That’s where all the nudies are, having fun,” she cried out as I rapidly slammed the car into reverse. The signs at the entrance proclaimed the most “welcoming, friendly and cheapest” site the region. Also, no doubt, the one with the largest number of todgers parading about every morning. Big bushes and high trees surrounded the perimeters and there was no way you could see in, but I think that we could hear the sounds of happy, joyful, bouncing, naked Germans contentedly surveying their fellow campers as nature intended.

I guess I’m just curious. There’s enough people doing it, there must be something in it. Is it the sense of liberation? Is there a sexual element to it? (Jesus, can there be considering the mass and age of most of the participants?) Is it just showing off? I saw a bloke in the Lamb last week with very tight shorts and an enormous cock. I can’t believe that he wasn’t aware of how much was on display and I suspect he liked it. I didn’t get close enough to hear if he spoke with a German accent or not.

So, I’m trying out a little experiment as I write this. It’s Sunday and I haven’t been out yet. I’ve had a shower, but not got dressed. All the curtains are still drawn. I’m naked. It feels… well, weird, to be honest. It feels quite normal. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed, but then I am alone. I’m not exposing myself to anyone.

As I finished typing that sentence a realisation is dawning over me. I’m in the room-the-name-of-which-is-currently-under-review following a protest to last week’s blog (or RoNCUR for short) which does not have any curtains. At all. The room is round the back of the house and it’s difficult for anyone in the houses behind to see in. Difficult, but possible. In fact I know it is, because the woman in one of those rooms likes to stand around is just her pants - often at about seven thirty on a Friday evening as she jiggles around deciding what to wear - and if I can see her, she can presumably see me.

I am on display. Christ, the desk lamp is on - I’m literally under the spotlight. A sudden sense of creeping fear comes across me. I feel a little chilly. Is this even legal, I wonder? Sitting around naked in your own RoNCUR? I try to suck my gut in, to angle my crotch further under the table. I’m constantly glancing at the windows of the other houses. All the curtains seem to be drawn, but there could be eyes peeking out from behind. There. Did that one just twitch? Are there people watching me; wondering what the hell I’m doing? I feel like a freak on display - “look at that man,” the squeal is disgust, “he’s got weird bits and is all strange looking!”

Sod it. I slide out my chair and crawl across the floor to find some trousers.