Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Truth About Victorian Sex

Sappho by Charles Mengin
I remember an old Private Eye cartoon where a man was shouting down the telephone after unpacking an inflatable Margaret Thatcher "No, no, no!" he yelled. "I ordered Victoria Principal not Victorian principles!"

(Victoria Principal was in Dallas, in case you forgot or weren't born then.)

It is hard to know what is less likely to get you in the mood, a inflatable Iron Lady or the idea of Victorian sex.

We all know about the Victorians, they are the anti-Viagra. They are to the erotic experience what lung cancer is to the enjoyment of a cigar.

They covered their piano legs lest the curves offend their delicate taste and recoiled at the sight of their wives' naughty bits. Queen Victorian refused to believe in the existence of Lesbians whilst Prince Albert had an unusual adornment to his physiology. They persecuted homosexuals, whilst in secret they corrupted young girls or visited prostitutes. Their literature meanwhile, is as erotic as Ann Widdecombe.

I must admit I would have signed up to most of those opinions until I read Matthew Sweet's Inventing The Victorians, in which I discovered there was a little more to it than that.

Take the story of the piano legs, for example. There is no record of anyone in Britain actually doing this, but they did make jokes about the Americans doing so. The original story appears in A Diary in America by one Captain Marryat in 1839. The Captain was probably telling a tall tale, but it is true in so far that the Americans of the Gilded Era were regarded as being more uptight on bedroom matters than Victorian Brits.

Or what about Ruskin and his wedding night?

We know that his marriage to Effie Gray was a complete disaster and was never consummated. Why that was though is a mystery, even though everyone at the time was discussing the issue. Ruskin's comments were "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." He never explained further.

Effie by Thomas Richmond
As the visible bits of Effie appeared to be quite a turn on to most Victorian males, Ruskin's comments made their imagination turn to less public areas. However it's equally possible that she had big feet, or a curly-out belly button, or maybe Ruskin just found her a really annoying person. Certainly when the nonsense poet Edward Lear visited her some years later he found her dreadfully boring and said "her drawling stoniness disgusted that I don't care ever to see her again", although as Lear was gay we can perhaps understand why he was not taken in by Effie's charm.

Or maybe, trapped in the middle of the biggest sex (or lack of sex) scandal of the century, and with the entire literate world discussing his failure to rise to the occasion, he just said the first thing that came into his head.

The theory that, brought up on a diet of classical nudes and before the advent of the shaven-haven, he recoiled at the sight of his wife's short and curlies dates from 1965, somewhat after the event (or non-event).

Ruskin isn't the only one to be mythologised a century or so later, take Prince Albert's Prince Albert for example. 

The idea that the royal member had a little attachment allowing it to be tucked away out of sight dates from the 1970s and the fertile imagination of one Douglas Malloy, the owner of a chain of piercing parlours.

Spot the Prince Albert (he's on the right)
Had the real Prince Consort been so embarrassed by his German sausage he probably wouldn't have worn such tight trousers whilst courting the young Queen, who seems to have been quite enamoured of the royal lunchbox.

However would Albert have been as free to strut his stuff if he hadn't been heterosexual? Had he been gay, would he have suffered the same fate as poor Oscar Wilde?

But was Oscar Wilde actually gay?

It may seem a daft question as he certainly engaged in plenty of man-on-man action (and a fair bit of man-on-boy action, but we'll come to that later), but if you went back in time and asked him whether this was a biological trait or a lifestyle choice he'd have probably just stared at you, and not because he was smashed on absinthe.

Instead the 1890s world he lived in was just as laissez faire sexually as economically. Many of his acolytes appear to have been solidly heterosexual, if they were sexually active at all, yet all shared his taste in art and nude boys. It appears they existed in a demi-monde in which the choice of gender of your sexual partner was no more important than your choice of sexual position, and of considerably less relevance than your opinion of Pre-Raphaelite art.

If society hadn't figured out homosexuality yet, neither had the medical profession. The distinction between being gay and being transsexual wasn't suggested until 1899. The medical books that pathologised homosexuality are a product of the twentieth, not the nineteenth, century.

But if they didn't medicalise being gay, they did criminalise it, but perhaps not in the way most people think.

She is amused.
The downfall of Mr Wilde, a lot of people forget, came about because he tried to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. He lost simply because the codifier of the rules of boxing was telling the truth.

He was subsequently prosecuted and convicted of 'gross indecency' under the 1885 Labrouche Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

This bit of legislation is itself a subject of myth. That it refers only to acts between men was not because Queen Victoria didn't believe in the existence of Lesbians.

Maybe she didn't, but constitutionally it was irrelevant. Parliament could have passed a law against the Tooth Fairy and she'd have had to sign it, that's how the system works.

The Amendment Act itself was primarily involved with outlawing White Slavery. There is a story here, but we haven't time. Basically White Slavery didn't exist, but the press had persuaded the country it did so legislation was passed. The law also provided powers to suppress brothels and protect children from pimps.

Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas
Added almost as an afterthought was the paragraph about Gross Indecency which, crucially, wasn't defined. Labrouche himself was no puritan and a friend of Oscar Wilde. His only comments on the amendment were that he hoped it would be used equally against 'high and low' so maybe he was only concerned with protecting Working Class boys from aristocratic predators, or maybe the maximum sentence of two years was regarded as a progressive improvement on the life sentence for buggery.

If this was the case then by his sloppy wording he produced an act that allowed the full force of the law to be used against anyone transgressing the sexual norms of the time and which convicted Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing and thousands of others. The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

But if the Victorians were quick to gaol queers, they turned a blind eye to paedophilia. Or did they?

Rev. Dodgeson with Alice Liddell
Several thousand Twitter users have recently learnt a hard lesson about making accusations without evidence, but posterity still seems to make an exception for the Victorians. Ruskin is one such accused, along with Lewis Carroll and Wilkie Collins.

We can't prove Ruskin wasn't a nonce, or that the Rev. Dodgeson wasn't doing something unmentionable to Alice Liddell by the banks of the Thames, so a certain amount of mud is likely to stick. But for the inventor of the modern detective novel there is a case for the defence.

First the case for the prosecution. Wilkie Collins entered into a long correspondence with an eleven year old girl he called Nannie, and even entertained a mock marriage to her. In his letters he mixed smutty puns such as 'delighted to receive conjugal embrace' and suggestions she adapt to a spell of hot weather by wearing 'a hat and feathers and nothing else.'

Collins; connoisseur of the female derriere
Petty damning evidence. Newsnight would have to put on a specially extended edition if the story broke today, but as I said, not only is there no evidence he touched a hair on Nannie's head - or any other part of her - he has a defence.

Collins, you see, used to order sack loads of heterosexual, adult porn in brown paper parcels from a well know New York photographer. The details of his purchases are on record, along with his correspondence which indicates he was an ass man. All boringly normal I'm afraid.

The only eminent Victorian of whom we can say with any certainty did have sex with minors was the aforementioned Oscar Wilde, although as an honorary Modern he seems to have been forgiven for it.

The bearded novelist's taste for artful smut though brings us to another little known fact about the Victorians. They liked their dirty mags. Indeed, they invented the term 'top shelf magazine'.

Today such titillation is usually associated with newspaper proprietors on the right of the political spectrum, but in Victorian times it was the left that sold sex. Mass market porn was pioneered by, of all people, the Chartists.  Magazines such as Town, Crim. Con. Gazette and Exquisite detailed upper-class sex scandals to raise money for the cause and discredit the Establishment. Perhaps, as Sweet suggests, they should have called them Socialist Wanker.

These days only the Daily Mail publishes those sort of stories. They probably have a different motive, although I have my suspicions.

Pornographer in chief was William Dugdale, who had once been part of the Cato Street Conspiracy to assassinate the whole Tory Cabinet. Not something Richard Desmond ever tried.

When Chartism collapsed he became a full time publisher of adult material. Although raided by the Police on numerous occasions, he continued his trade for more than forty years.

Not that Dugdale was unique in putting adult material in print. For the Victorians, it seems, the printed page really was their Internet, and there was sex everywhere. Even the worthy Household Cyclopedia of 1881 includes, amongst the recipes for devilled kidneys, advice for men who can't get it up. You don't find that in Nigella.

Most discussed of all is My Sexual Life. A mammoth tome, it was published in eleven volumes, possibly to make it easier to hold in one hand. It's a tale of  'firkytoodling', 'gamahuching' and visits to the 'dumpling-shop' and is racy stuff, far too explicit for a family blog like this. That the book could be published and distributed freely should be cast iron evidence that the Victorians were anything but prudish about sex.

Instead though it's taken as proof of exactly the opposite. Some academics seem to be under the impression that this story of a thousand visits to prostitutes is actually gospel truth. As the book was written by a globe trotting businessman who had married into a Jewish textile family, it probably wasn't. He didn't have the time.

Instead the book is almost certainly the work of an over-active imagination and is as useful as a historical document as Fifty Shades of Grey. However it has helped to create the myth that the only way a Victorian man could get his end away was with a lady of the night, although to be fair, this was a myth the Victorians did their own bit to help foster.

The Dancing Platform at the Cremorne Gardens by Phebus Levin
Now there certainly was a lively sex trade in London in Victorian times, just as there is now, but quite how widespread it was is open to question. The Cremorne, for example, was a pleasure garden - a sort of Victorian outdoor nightclub - and was supposedly the place to go to purchase a tart, and not the sort Mrs Beeton baked.

William Acton, a medical Doctor, was sent to investigate. He really was a Victorian stereotype as he thought 'self abuse' weakened a man and women were naturally frigid. However in the Cremorne he found men actively seeking an alternative to the former and women who were anything but the latter, and it was all consensual and non-commercial.

So how did the Victorians become victims of such slander?

Virginia Woolf and her circle have a lot to answer for. After Lytton Strachley, whose book Eminent Victorians had demolished the reputation of four prominent Victorians in a humorous, but not always factually accurate manner, had come round for a bit of posh sex talk she claimed "It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation." On another occasion she said fighting Victorian patriarchy was equal to the fight against fascism.

The irony being that whilst the Bloomsbury Group could discuss Victorian sex lives as they were all out in the open, they themselves remained firmly in the closet. Their friend John Maynard Keynes, for example, was never in the closet himself and kept a rather racy diary, but his biographer chose not to mention this even after he was dead.

Woolf's commitment to anti-fascism was also a little suspect. Her friend, and lover, Vita Sackville-West was married to a member of Oswald Mosley's New Party and edited the gardening page of his newspaper.

John William Godward
However everyone needs someone to look down on. If the Bloomsbury Group were neither as open about their sexuality nor as removed from fascism as they would have liked, at least they could claim they weren't as bad as the Victorians.

None of this is to suggest that all Victorians were broad minded libertines. There were plenty of people then who were bigoted, repressed, puritanical and hypocritical, just as there are now, which is the point.

Pornographers like Dugdale were raided even as the Pre-Raphaelites were painting their 'stunners'. Poor old Oscar Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol, but Bouton and Park, the most famous transsexual entertainers of the era, were found not guilty of buggery despite being as 'out' as it's possible to be.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Some inappropriate, by modern standards, friendships were struck up with young girls, but to date no Victorian Jimmy Saville has been proved to exist.

They had top shelf magazines and sex manuals for married couples. They devoured racy novels and flirted at night spots.

The point is that they were just like us. In fact they are us.

Modern urban life was invented during the Victorian era and has now spread round the world to become the major mode of human existence. They were the first Metrosexuals.

Looking back at the Victorian era, we see the past really is like a foreign country.

They do things exactly the same there.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Why 20 Is Plenty

From Henry's Quest by Graham Oakley

Climate change is on it s way and if that doesn't get us, there's Peak Oil which may or may not be on the way.

We all need to become less dependent on carbon fuelled transportation and getting about in a greener and more sustainable way. Making better use of buses and trains, car sharing and not using aeroplanes is important.

20 Is Plenty

However the greenest method of travel is your own feet, whether in direct contact with the ground or pedalling a bike.

Two things make walking and cycling a pain in England. The first the weather, but there's not much we can do about the first two except learn a bit of resilience. The second is the traffic.

To start things off we want motorists to slow down, at least in residential areas.

The Gory Facts
Now The Good News

It's Not About Speed Bumps  

One thing we can probably all agreeon is that 'traffic calming' is not great. It delays ambulances, increases traffic fumes and fuel use as cars accelerate between bumps and it really annoys drivers.

For the same money you can make 50 miles of street a 20mph zone, with a much greater overall reduction in speed. Once motorists get used to a 20mph default speed limit they don't need the bumps.

The Transition Perspective

Fewer people killed or injured on the road is a good thing in itself, but Transition Towns would want this to be a first step towards people reclaiming the streets.

We would want to see not only more walking and cycling, but street parties, play streets and more imaginative use of urban space.

Join the 20's Plenty Campaign.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: United Artists' "Empire Trilogy"

Just before the Second World War a former Hungarian cavalry officer called Zoltan Korda made a series of films about the British Empire for the United Artists film company.

They weren't meant as a trilogy, but they make an interesting take on how we saw the Empire at a time when it was both at its greatest extent and nearing its end. Unlike the Old West of contemporary Westerns, the Empire was still somewhere you could visit when the films were made.

The last of these films is the best. The Four Feathers had been filmed once before and twice since. Written by a British spy, it is the story of a man, afraid of being afraid, who resigns from the army when his regiment is ordered to the Sudan. Awarded white feathers for cowardice by his fiance and three best friends, he heads off to the desert in disguise to return the feathers and rescue his mates who have been captured by the Khalifa, the successor to the Mahdi, who had led his people in revolt against their Egyptian masters and British allies and created an Islamic state on the Upper Nile.

The film, made on the eve of war in 1939, has something to say about quiet, rather than ostentatious, courage, but the poor old Sudanese just have to accept their lot as victims of colonialism. As an adventure, though, it works and whilst the Mahdists may just be scenery, they look magnificent.

Indeed, the whole film looks great. It was shot in the Sudan, whereas later films about the revolt, such as Khartoum or the Heath Ledger remake,  were shot in Egypt and Morocco due to the current unrest there. Maybe it's a pedantic point, but the Sudanese desert is a uniquely barren place of rock and hard ground, far more alien than the shifting sands further north.

As well as the real Sudan, we get the real Sudanese too. The 'extras' were people whose parents or grandparents would have actually fought against Kitchener's invaders, and allegedly the Welsh Guardsmen playing the British soldiers kept their rifles loaded in case they got a little carried away in the battle scenes. The Sudan may have been colonised in 1939, but it certainly wasn't conquered, and two years later there was to be another revolt and Britain's toehold on the country would consist of a single besieged garrison in Khartoum. Sudan would in turn become the first base for Osama Bin Laden who, like the original Mahdi, had a message of religious war against the West.

Compared to the exotic location and locals, the white cast are depressingly straight laced. Sir Ralph Richardson - the keen biker - does a fine job of going blind and the dinner party scene which bookends the film, where an elderly General tells and exaggerated story of the Battle of Balaclava, is moderately amusing.

All told, this is a film I'd watch again, a film that, if seen alongside Zulu, would make you wonder exactly why the British Empire film never took off as a genre. The answer to that question though, is in Korda's two previous works.

The Drum made the year before, starts well. We are in the Northwest Frontier province of British India, now the disputed Tribal Region of Pakistan where US Drones hunt Al Queda activists.

Things weren't exactly peaceful in 1938, but the film really does appear to have been made on location (even the ever reliable is unsure) and Indian army soldiers certainly look like the real thing.

After that though things go rapidly downhill. We are in a small kingdom where the tame king has been assassinated and his brother has taken his place. This guy doesn't want to be part of the Raj, which we are supposed to believe makes him a Bad Man.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the late king has a pro-British son. Played by the always excellent Sabu, star of The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book. This character just about makes the film watchable, although you constantly hope he's going to have some sort of epiphany and go off and join the Indian National Congress.

Seeing this film I imagine it is how Carry On Up The Khyber would appear to the Goodness Gracious Me characters who thought Titanic was a comedy and Only Fools And Horses serious drama. I think I did watch it to the end once, but I was off work ill at the time and was unable to move off the sofa. It was truly turgid stuff.

But at least it wasn't grossly offensive, which is not something you can say about Korda's 1935 effort, Sanders of the River. They don't show this very often on TV, for reasons that will become clear.

Set in Central Africa it is based on a 1911 novel by a chap called Edgar Wallace, who was a well known writer once, but is now only remembered for King Kong. The titular character controls a section of colonial Africa by means of a heavily armed paddle steamer, which is what the West used for this sort of job before the invention on Predator Drones.

Production of the film started well, with a Second Unit crew dispatched on a four month odyssey through Africa to record authentic tribal music and dances. They also hired African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson to play Bosambo, a tribal leader allied to Sanders, and founding father of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta in a small role.

Robeson was a political activist who campaigned in favour of Civil Rights and against fascism. His support for the Soviet Union put him on the wrong side of Senator McCarthy and, in a move Comrade Stalin would have approved of, his name was removed from his college's football records. He was undaunted though and his motto was "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

Unfortunately Robeson soon realised that he'd chosen the wrong side when he agreed to work for Korda. He'd hoped the film would help Black Americans appreciate their African roots, but the scenes that would have done this remained on the cutting room floor. Instead, a pre-credit message was put on screen praising "the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency", work in keeping the Africans oppressed that is, and Bosambo became an Uncle Tom, a stooge of the White Man.

Robeson tried to stop the film being released by buying up all the prints, but he failed. Instead the man who was awarded the International Stalin Prize in 1952 found he had just made "the only film of mine that can be shown in (Mussolini's) Italy or (Nazi) Germany, for it shows the negro as Fascist states desire him - savage and childish."

Lest anyone think I'm being a bit harsh here, and that such views went unchallenged in society at that time, I will call in my defence the 1938 Will Hay film Old Bones of the River. They don't show this very often on TV either, but perhaps they should as it's been described as "the most comprehensive trashing of the British Empire ever put on celluloid." Here the Sanders character is a self-important fool who puts Eton collars of naked African children in an attempt to make them into English gentlemen, whilst his white colleagues are busy brewing illegal spirits and selling guns to the natives. If you haven't seen Sanders it does come across as racist rubbish, but it also shows how ideas of the White Man's Burden were antiquated even in the thirties.

I will also call in my defense a film made in the same year as The Four Feathers and set in the Raj, but which manages to be heroic, exciting and pretty much inoffensive. This is Gunga Din, staring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr as Kipling's Soldiers Three fighting off, with the aid of the famous water bearer, a resurgent Cult of Thuggee.

Here we see the Empire as it could have been on screen, a mythical place, like the Old West, where reality only tangentially approaches.

Steven Spielberg tried for just that when he stole the plot for the second of his Indiana Jones films, a movie in which the colonial governor and his Sepoy's, like the 7th Cavalry of legend, rescue the heroes at the eleventh hour.

However unlike the Old West, the British Empire didn't fade away into legend. The war that began a few months after The Four Feathers was released was the beginning of the end for the European Empires, and their passing wasn't peaceful.

By the time the next significant film about the British Empire, Zulu, was made the Empire had virtually gone. Its Directory, Cy Enfield, would probably have got on better with Robeson than Korda as he'd also got on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson would also have approved of the respectful treatment of Zulu rituals, and his strenuous efforts to involve and characterise the real Zulus he used.

I'm possibly the only human being of the last half century to have watched all three films of Korda's, and I'm not planning on repeating the experience.

All told, I prefer Carry On Up The Khyber.