Sex and Reading or Reading Sex
My brother had been to Amsterdam before me. He had not spent his time going from the Rijksmuseum to the Modern Art Museum to the Van Gogh Museum; he was on a rugby tour.
“The Red Light District is something else,” he said. “There are like these shop windows where the women sit and you think they are almost statues because they have got so much make-up on but they wave to you.”
“Are they hot?”
“What do you think? Anyway, they have these shows where they do extraordinary things.”
“Like there is one where there is a guy who can ejaculate from the stage onto the third row!”
“Gross. Did you go?”
“Nah, we weren’t there long enough and they wouldn’t have let us in anyhow. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like seeing the women like that. It was creepy.”
We were provincials. We were middle class. We were cocooned in a little bubble of fairly nice Englishness. The tweedy inertia in the knobs, who wore polo-necks and jackets, off-set an ooh-aar conservatism in the plebs who couldn’t bear to see anything change, but they could get together at the same farm fence and bemoan changes in the big world. “You wouldn’t see that back home,” was a standard statement when you went abroad. Abroad was north or east of Bristol.
On the other hand, we were townies. The soft open vowel sounds became mashed up and bitter in town. It was still West Country, still enough to make you ridiculous saying something serious to anyone outside the area, but the yokel idioms were tanged with sharpness around the edges. Townies swore more than country folk, spoke faster and wore chav clothes like my blue bomber jacket. Even in the town there were areas with different voices: to the east the council estates, to the west the middle-class sprawls with the size of the garden telling you something about the status of the resident. The wind blew in from the south west so the posh people were never downwind of the poor.
Was I rich or poor? Living in the centre of town gave me an idea that it all depended on which way the wind was blowing.
My brother took a plane from Bristol direct. This came in the same packet with doing sports and looking at prostitutes: sport had more category. Art was another deal. Time was not of the essence. An interminable bus journey to Harwich and the ferry to Hook of Holland were good enough. However, both the rugby and the art were cultural markers for kids who grew up with football and comics in a common primary school. Going up to QC on scholarships age 12 elevated us into the world of rugby and art. Was this social climbing? The mere fact of reading Germinal in French class in the original language was a betterment, the same as being able to go to galleries and watching the South Bank Show.
In Germinal the workers have sex while the factory owners have neurotic perversion. Sitting in the bus with my Metaphysical Poets, I meditated on crossing borders and boundaries, going Viking in reverse, chasing down culture in an eastward mission that would take me further away from home ground, roots and attachments. Did I feel like Étienne Lantier? Perhaps, because I belonged neither with the workers nor the owners. My dear old dad was initially pleased that we had those scholarships but suffered a silent horror at what we had become as our voices changed. I moved away from his rooted sense of South West identity into areas of pretentious priggery and my brother just rebelled at everything. Meanwhile at QC, the posh school on the hill, being a scholar meant being a freeloading outsider. What do freeloading outsiders do if not cross boundaries, enter through doors they have no invitation to pass and dress up in clothes that are not their own?
The sporty types talked about sex. They even had groping rights with their girlfriends although their imaginations were hemmed around with banality: grow up, get a good job, a house, kids. It was paradoxical that the rugby players went to the Red Light District, gawping at the misery of prostitution, whilst the arty types, minds filled with Baudelaire, Huysmans and Modigliani, steered clear of the street and headed for the galleries. I read sex into everything. The pomegranate on the table next to the skull made me ask, “Where is my Persephone?” Death was no dissuasion: I had a headful of grisly Donne that made me associate the bigger and the little deaths; hormones took care of the rest.
“The weight goes down through the laags to the floor,” the wiry haired drawing instructor said. We were life-drawing in the Van Gogh Museum.
I looked across at Joe who was doing a smudgy black charcoal thing and chose coloured pastels. We were in the Van Gogh Museum, dammit, and colour had to figure.
“Thaas good,” said the tutor when she did her rounds. “De laag that takes de weight must be stronger than de laag thas bent.”
I could see what she meant: no good fussing around with the loose bits; the idea was to see the tensions.
Afterwards we mooched around in the foyer and I looked over the girls from other schools who were hanging around in tight little groups and touching each other on the shoulders and arms.
“How do you get past that?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Joe asked.
“I mean, how do you get past the fact that girls are always in groups of three? What do you do? Should we just go on over there and start talking?”
“Whoa! Slow down. What are you after? We are out of here in a few minutes. What do you hope to achieve?”
I looked over at the three graces. There was a short-haired brunette with big glasses and a thin tasselled scarf draped around her shoulders. She was listening to one of her friends who was dramatically pouting and gesticulating with her hands. I sidled a little closer and tried to listen to what she was talking about but it seemed to be a sequence of exclamations with no real point, “I mean like oh my god you know I mean like what the hell and I was like you know and then well come on innit and just well oh my god know what I mean?”
“How was the drawing?” I asked and was greeted by three fish faces turning to me in unison.
“Uh?” said the girl with the tassels.
“How did it go?” I asked again.
She stared at me with a mixture of amusement and condescension. The others turned to each other, giggled then stared at me with disdain, “C´mon, Trace, less get outta here.”
“That didn’t go too well, did it?” Joe said.
“I dunno,” I replied. “I don’t get it. Some guys seem to be able to take control of the situation. They look the girls up and down like they were pieces of meat and say a few cruel words with a cunning smile. That seems to do it. Or take Picasso. What an arsehole! I haven’t got the arsehole to nice thing worked out. I really haven’t.”
“That’s your problem, right there!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air.
“Why the hell would you bring Picasso into this situation? What the hell does Picasso have to do with the fact that you just crashed and burned?”
I chewed this over like a piece of cud for the rest of the afternoon. Sure, I was eyeing up all the girls. Sure, if just one of them had given me a moment of time I’d have been in there. But sexual attraction wasn’t the meat market my brother had described in the Red Light District. I imagined long chatty conversations where the Beauty and I looked into each other’s eyes and became so progressively fascinated by each other that kissing would be inevitable, the kissing would be so good that eventually sex would be inevitable. It seemed to me that I had to work on the fascinating part. The girls were fascinating me all right, but I was just not fascinating them.
How could I achieve that? It would obviously take more reading.