A Handy Guide to post #metoo Valentines

Well this is awkward.

Of course Valentine’s Day has always been awkward, it’s synonymous with, tongue-tied inept gestures and confused boundaries but this year, the rights and wrongs of romance are more opaque, confusing and dangerous than ever before. How can we know whether, when a date reaches out, they are mindful or a monster?

As populations grow, gene diversity widens. And, as potential mate selection becomes more complex so, it seems, proportionally, do our underlying courtship rituals and patterns; the taboos and to-dos of romance.

In pre-history, it’s thought, meet, greet, rape and mate was pretty much the order of the day; chocolates and flowers had little play with homo erectus. Even in the early civilizations of Greece and Rome, love poetry suggests there was more interest in ‘favourites’ than trying to beguile a mate to carry your genetic destiny. In Medieval Europe mating and marriage was strictly business and contracts. Romance itself didn’t actually appear until the 12th century and even then it came with a set of complicated and contradictory rules, (De Amore, Capellanus, Andreas, 1180), which has been baffling horny teenagers ever since.

Part of the difficulty of romance has always been that no one is ever sure that they’re doing the right thing. I urge you to read a fascinating history of this in Making Love – A Conspiracy of the Heart. (Brill, Marius, Doubleday 2001,)

So the course of true love never did run smooth, but now the #metoo and #timesup campaigns, while redefining sexual politics, are throwing the whole range of courtship behaviour into a maelstrom of complexity. Not just for lovers trying to learn new inoffensive ways to express sexual interest but for their objects who have to figure out intentions from ever more subtle signals.

Valentines Day’s most famous ritual has always been a little creepy. The line between sending an anonymous note declaring your passion, and stalking, has always been a thin one.

The line itself is reciprocation. You’re fine if the object of your passion wants it. But woe betide you if they don’t. And how are you to know, unless you’re willing to cross it?

Sometimes it’s pretty clear. If you’re convicted stalker Edward Vine, sending missives from your cell to newsreader Emily Maitlis (the clue’s in the name mate), then your attentions are likely to be unwelcome. On the other hand, if you’re 54-year-old Henry Bolton (leader of UKIP at time of press) being wooed by 25-year-old topless model Jo Marney, Christmas is definitely the best time to dump the wife, kids and any political credibility.

Most courtship signalling is less cut and dried. My own wife suffered 15 years of advances from a man she had no interest in before realising that the only way she might disillusion him was to marry him.

Much of the naming and shaming of the last year, which exploded with the Weinstein revelations, has been exposing not just rape, which is already on the criminal statutes, but other forms of sexual aggression which hitherto have inhabited the greyer area between slap’n’tickle and GBH. The vast majority of which seems to have something to do with what men do with their hands.

English does as much as a gender neutral language can to masculinise hands. They are manual, manipulate, manhandle, and so on. The French “main” has been conflated with the Germanic “mann” but something obvious is manifest and something you dare not refuse is mandatory. While you might get a handy man in to fix your boiler, a handy woman sounds more like a masseuse with a line in happy endings.

From the bragging “pussy” grabbing of the President, to the braying gropers of the President’s Club, right the way through to the horrific serial abuse of hundreds of children by the USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, what men do with their hands is no less invasive than what they do with their penises. Men’s hands are a menace. I’m not saying that men are not responsible for their hands, but what men find hard to consider is why they use them as they do. It’s not like there are any sexually stimulating arousal nerves in male fingers. So what possible satisfaction could a man get from grabbing an unwilling “pussy”, or for that matter any sexual anatomy or, indeed inserting their digits into anybody’s vagina?

The easy answer is power, it’s a way for disenfranchised men to show exactly who’s boss. It’s a way to feel strong and in a position of authority. You’re a king… or a President I guess. But maybe there is something else going on at a deeper level.

At one end of the hand-to-gland spectrum we have foreplay which, between consenting lovers, is the beginning of a path to mutual sexual satisfaction. At the other end is out-and-out assault. Between the two we have a host of words: stimulate – caress – touch – fondle – cop-a-feel – grope – molest. The correct verb for what might be exactly the same manual action relies completely on the receiver of this attention. The level of reciprocation defines everything and even if “no means no” is clear enough, “no” to intercourse and “no” to grope seem to occupy two different places in the male psyche.

Whether it’s down to too much testosterone, or the combination of X and Y chromosomes, or a genetic urgency, or because we wear our vaginas on the outside, or just the social expectation of gender dominance, men are never far from their own sexual needs. Gropers, fondlers, frotteurs, predominantly men, have all sorts of sociopathy but deep down, I have no doubt, there is also a misguided desperate expectation of reciprocation.

So here’s a simple secret that even men find hard to admit. When a man touches a woman or a lover it can mean all sorts of things as well, but it’s also a plea: “touch me”. It is a primeval do-as-I-do yearning for reciprocation, a desire to be touched right back. A longing to begin foreplay. Somewhere right at the back of Trump’s tiny mind there is the delusion that if he grabs a pussy, its owner might just sigh with delight, grab his tiny Donald Jr back and orgasms will follow. This almost psychotic delusion, ridiculous as it may be, may just lie at the very heart of every touch-feely, gropey, fingery man you ever met.

And as more and more #metoo stories emerge, it seems the male inability to gauge reciprocation, or their willingness to ignore the lack of it, is a delusion that creates monsters. Happy Valentines.

 

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Love Nuts?

O the hateful, grateful, fateful, dateful day has arrived once more. The shops are full of heart shaped balloons and pink fluffy handcuffs, the restaurants are hiking their prices and it’s all coming up roses for florists. The ides of February are upon us. The saint responsible for our October birthday bonanza is having his day. Love is in the air; try not to choke.

‘Love’ is one of the two ultimate life memes (‘religion’ being the other); an idea passed down through the generations, slowly mutating, and stubbornly surviving as effectively as genetic material. An idea so ingrained that it seems completely natural.

But if love’s so natural, why does it need a special day? I mean flatulence, haemorrhoids, and the making of fatuous comparisons to undermine the importance of a subject also come quite naturally, but none are honoured with a patron saint or a day of appreciation. The bells of St Piles don’t ring and despite the invention of the vindaloo we don’t go out dining once a year to purposefully inspire the methane missives.MAD-LOVE-black-and-white

Falling in love, we learn from an early age, is the most natural thing in the world, we all do it, even educated fleas do it. Except, of course, they don’t (I’d say they simply hop about until they die, but maybe that’s jumping to conclusions). Birds don’t do it, bees don’t do it, not even the beans in Boston do it. It is a distinctly human trait and there is a growing trend in academic studies to treat the symptoms and causes of being ‘in’ love as ‘unnatural’ to the human condition. They have, after all, no discernible biological cause or zoological analogue. It’s not like we have to fall in love to procreate, just check Tinder. No don’t. Really. DON’T. Our species could get on just fine without being confused by courtship rituals or weathering the visceral silences as we disappoint each other’s parents at that first awkward meeting.

Although there are ways we love which are undeniably innate, instincts that guide us to care for, and about, our mates and progenies, being ‘in’ love is a different matter. The emotions of being ‘in’ love simply seem a delusional loss of sanity caused by trying to resolve two completely incompatible impulses: our ‘natural’ sexual instinct, our urge to procreate and continue our genetic line; and our ‘cultural’ sense of social responsibility, to live un-raped, in a civilised manner by a set of codes which protect all of us from each other.

And trying to balance the two, we all go a little crazy.  Psychologists have even coined a distinct term for this delusional state: ‘Limerence’.

Then there are sociologists who have amassed evidence that the symptoms of ‘limerence’ are predominately ‘learnt’ from social influences and that ‘romance’ is the way we try to establish rules in our attempt to rationalise the madness.

And finally there are the historians and cultural academics, including CS Lewis, who have pointed to a distinct period in European history when ‘love’ was invented.  A ‘cult of love’ sprang from the medieval courts of 12th Century France, in the era of the crusades when, for the first time in European history, women were left nominal heads of the states as the kings and menfolk went to kick off 900 years of resentment in the Middle East. Somehow, as the power of the queens ascended (this was also the time when the Queen was introduced to the chess board) the European feudal system changed from Lord-Fearing into Love-Fearing.  To be in love is to always be aware of the possibility of rejection, a much more economical fear than all the beatings and beheadings medieval kings were always having to organise.

So, could ‘romance’, our interpretation of the confusion between the urge to mate and the need to date, been codified as a form of statecraft? A way to control the filthy masses through their own dirty urges?

Today, a cultural production line of romances, ads, dramas, pop-songs, poetry, bombards us every second, all telling us that love is the most fantastic experience possible, that it is something we must have.  Is it really a reflection of human nature or is it propaganda?

If falling in love is unnatural, delusional, something perhaps designed to keep the masses in the thrall of the state; if it is subject to a mass of negative symptoms, anxiety, stress and insecurity; if it doesn’t help our sense of self-worth or sanity; why do we still feel compelled to use it to choose our mates? Why do we keep falling for it?

Lovers of the world unite. Put down your Special Valentines Menus, save your stamps and your SWALKs and your boxes of Milk Tray. Waste no more time with this ‘pretty little thing’, tell each other exactly what you want. Do the maths then go forth and multiply… that’s when everything really gets tricky.

 

Discover the secrets of unnatural love in Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart by Marius Brill, available on Amazon and through all good bookshops.

First published in

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Spies Among Us

You’re quietly eating your sandwich on a park bench when a man in dark glasses sits down next to you. ‘The red squirrel eats with a fork tonight,’ he intones in a thick accent. Do not be surprised. Make no false moves. You’re in the right place. Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster have a rich history of such non sequitur meetings and clandestine assignations. From Baden Powell to, body-in-the-bag spy, Gareth Williams, the area is a renowned for espionage and its practitioners.

‘Neighbourhoods like this,’ Roy Berkeley wrote, about the second world war in A Spy’s London, were perfect for spies; ‘where bourgeois propriety could be counted on to give a certain security: the odd-looking foreigners, if noticed at all, would tend to be discreetly ignored.’ And little has changed in this area, a vanguard of multiculturalism, where the only colour that matters is the colour of your money.

Some of these boroughs’ best kept secrets lie in the inconspicuous buildings we pass every day. There are no blue plaques, no statues or thronging crowds of tourists, but the quiet men and women, who plied their secret trade on these streets, changed the course of the world.

Harold ‘Kim’ Philby is one of Kensington and Chelsea’s most infamous former residents. A member of the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring, he worked as a double agent passing secrets from MI6 straight to the KGB for over twenty years; he was central to perpetuating the Cold War and the fear of imminent threat it held for so many.

When MI6 moved to central London in 1943, Philby took up residence at his mother’s flat in the basement of Grove Court, Holly Mews. He came with his wife, his two children and his two terriers called MI5 and MI6. And it was here he returned, in 1955, to hold a press conference, after being thrown out of Washington by the CIA as a suspected Russian spy. He denied spying, threatened to sue anyone who speculated that he did, and he was comfortably back at work in MI6 within six months. It was another ten years of treachery before he was finally exposed and fled to the USSR.

In 1944, collecting salaries in both roubles and pounds, Philby was able to move his family into the very exclusive 18 Carlyle Square, heart of the wealthy beau monde. He held lavish and decadent parties here yet few thought, or dared, to ask how a mid-ranking civil servant could afford such splendour.

Both properties are just a short stroll from the, then, Russian Consulate at 3 Rosary Gardens. Many believe it was here Philby was ‘turned’; recruited to the KGB. The building still keeps thick black blinds permanently down; the only clue to its present owner is the name on the bell, RIA Novosti, the Russian press agency.

It’s unlikely Philby delivered Britain’s most sensitive intelligence here; too obvious, too surveillable. Spies prefer ‘Dead Drops’ or ‘Dead Letter Boxes’ (DLBs); secret caches to leave film or information for later collection by other agents. When senior KGB boss, and British double agent, Oleg Gordievsky defected, he brought with him the KGB spy’s handbook which described the locations of the Russian DLBs. The statue of St Francis of Assisi opposite Holy Trinity Brompton Church was one. ‘If you stand facing the statue,’ says the handbook, ‘there is a large tree growing just to the left… The site for the DLB is on the ground at the base of the tree, between the tree and the fence.’

Another DLB is actually inside neighbouring Brompton Oratory; behind ‘the column nearest to the wall,’ by the first altar on the right as you enter. Seldom visited, poorly lit and not on ‘State property’, it was described by one KGB agent as ‘the safest in London.’ It seems they took the maxim of ‘hiding in plain sight’ very literally.

The Special Operations Executive, the secret WWII organisation tasked with teaching terror tactics to underground movements in occupied countries, didn’t just hide in plain sight, their ‘safe house’ used to protect foreign agents at 20 Cranley Place, just screams for attention with its extraordinary classical pediment.

Nearby, The Right Club – the clue to their political leaning was in the name – held their clandestine meetings in the flat above the Russian Tea Rooms, at 50 Harrington Road. As fascist anti-Semitism rose in 1930’s Germany, this extremist ‘Club’ gathered the cream of British society to agitate for Nazi rule in the UK. It included a dozen MPs, four peers, four sons of peers and a host of well-connected socialites.

MI5 agent Joan Miller infiltrated the group and befriended Anna Wolkoff, daughter of the Tea Room’s Tsarist owner. Marooned in London after the Russian Revolution, believing that their enemy’s enemy must be their friend, the Wolkoffs were rabid Nazi sympathisers.

When Miller began, she reported to MI5, just a few blocks away at 124-126 Cromwell Road. By the time she bust the Right Club, scoring the first major intelligence success of the war, MI5 had moved to Thames House in Victoria.

Anna Wolkoff’s lover, Tyler Kent, was a code clerk, at the American embassy. A vicious anti-Semite, he was a frequent guest at her house, 18 Roland Gardens. In 1940, as Chamberlain faltered in the first months of WWII, Churchill secretly began a dialogue with Roosevelt, hoping to persuade the US to enter the war. Kent, fearing an agreement would doom the Nazi effort, stole the documentation. He passed the papers – that could have undermined trust in Churchill, forcing him to resign – through Wolkoff, to the head of the Right Club, Archibald Ramsey, MP.

Just 13 days after Churchill was selected – rather than elected – as Prime Minister, Miller got wind of the plot. Tyler and Wolkoff were quickly apprehended and before Ramsey could release the papers, he too was arrested at his house at 24 Onslow Gardens. On finding the Right Club’s register of members, a total of 1,373 influential British Nazis were arrested. Churchill remained and in 1941 America entered the war; the rest is, of course, history.

But the area isn’t just testament to historic spying. ‘Tradecraft’ remains, very much, among us. Mystery still surrounds the discovery of Gareth Williams, the 31 year old code expert on secondment from GCHQ to MI6, whose dead body was found naked and padlocked in a sports holdall, submerged in “a fluid” in the bath of his 3rd floor flat at 36, Alderney Street, in 2010. Some say the flat is an MI6 safe house. But the Land Registry reveals the offshore owner is one New Rodina. Rodina, or родина, is the Russian word for ‘home’ or ‘Motherland’. In fact The Rodina Society was used as a cover operation for KGB activity in the West during the Cold War.
So tread carefully, keep an eye over your shoulder, there are spies among us.

Marius Brill’s comic spy thriller, Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart is available on Amazon and from all good bookshops.

 

First published in

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Love is…?

Love is . . . sore… something we celebrate on February 14th but do we have a clue what it is?

In a 1970’s newspaper cartoon, two naked babies with grotesquely oversized adult heads waged an apparently endless war of passive-aggressive one-upmanship trying to define what ‘Love is…’.  ‘Love is… never needing to say you’re sorry, but saying it anyway.’  ‘Love is… taking the garbage out.’  ‘Love is… holding her hair back whilst she vomits.’

I was of an age, and gender, that expected cartoons to be funny and, frankly, I struggled to see the joke. Was it, I wondered, something to do with the fact these amorous, but evidently neutered, infants lacked the equipment to copulate?

You see, I knew what sex was. I’d been told all about it one play-time in graphic and, as it turns out, almost completely inaccurate detail by Sadie Porlock (names have been changed even though any innocence that may have needed protecting was shattered then and there like an empty Pez dispenser on the playground asphalt). Sadie had long blond hair with mesmerising almost-boobs – and she worked them; there wasn’t a boy in the class for whom ball games would never be the same again.

So I reasoned, maybe those ‘Love is…’ mutant infants, deprived of sex, were just trying to work out why on earth they were still together? My experience of romance was, at that point, limited to observing my own parents and I was pretty sure they were working on the same problem. But, instead of coming up with answers like ‘… being hugged by surprise,’ theirs’ seemed to veer towards, ‘… having the opportunity to inflict more pain on each other by staying together rather than showing an ounce of mercy and letting each other go.’

But then, far from being funny, weren’t these stunted, cartoony, figures, in their constant state of denial, just tragic?  And that applied to the ‘Love is…’ boy and girl too.

It’s not that I hadn’t heard their type of slushy sentiment being voiced in my own family but it was understood that, when used, it was a kind of humorous chasm used to cover our gaping emotional one, something called ‘Sar-chasm’. I also knew there was a more sophisticated word for it, something bronzy or goldy – but with iron – and, far more than Sadie Porlock’s salacious revelations, my discovery that the vocabulary I’d been building for seven years was so tentative that a simple tone of voice could bestow totally  opposite meaning, robbed me of certainty for evermore.  From then on, nothing could be relied on to be what it seemed. Especially not ‘Love’ or what it ‘is’.

Which is why the ellipsis, the three dots, the pause, the grammatical exchange for what is wordless, is so poignant; it’s the only part of that proposition that’s honest about its elusiveness.

Forty years on the cartoon is still going and no one’s found a universal or, indeed, useful replacement for those dots.  Is it the animal urges in our underpants codified for civilised selectivity? Is it a behavioural filter to channel our fear of being alone or our selfish genes’ ambition for world domination? Is it an establishment plot designed to keep the young and hormonal perpetually too confused to mount a revolution?  Could it be a combination of all these things as proposed in the book Making Love’ by Marius Brill (available at all good bookshops now and perfect for Valentines)?

In her lifetime, cartoonist Kim Casali made a fortune from her little freakish naked misshapen baby things and the Mail on Sunday serialised them fully dressed lest, one suspects, they were seen to be promoting child pornography.  For years I kept looking at the cartoons, wondering if finally one would nail a definition I could live with.  But you can’t have high expectations of anybody who’s only reached beyond adolescence from the neck upwards or who, even for a moment, reckoned that ‘Love is… him holding your hand and giving it a squeeze.’

After forty years daily – fifteen thousand definitions – it seems that it might have been shrewder to try and  define love by what it wasn’t rather than what it was.  Now I await the day those eternally perky toddlers sprout pubic hair, and post pubescent give-it-the-finger attitude, and finally realise that whatever you think it is, ‘Love is…n’t.’

 

“Mestre. Say the word without hissing”

“Mestre. Say the word without hissing the conurbated villain, and pitying its citizens. As quickly as they can, two million tourists pass through, or by, Mestre each year, and each one will be struck by the same thought as they wonder at the aesthetic opposition that it represents. Mestre is an ugly town but ugly only in the same way that Michael Jackson might be desccribed as eccentric or a Tabasco Vindaloo flambéed in rocket fuel might be described as warm. Mestre is almost excremental in its hideousness: a fetid, fly-blown, festering, industrial urbanization, scarred with varicose motorways, flyovers, rusting railway sidings and the rubbish of a billion holidaymakers gradually burning, spewing thick black clouds into the Mediterranean sky. A town with apparently no centre, a utilitarian ever-expandable wasteland adapted to house the displaced poor, the shorebound, outpriced, domicile-deprived exiles from its neighbouring city. For, just beyond the condom- and polystyrene-washed, black-stained, mud shores of Marghera, Mestre’s very own oil refinery, less than a mile away across the waters of the lagoon in full sight of its own dispossessed citizens, is the Jewel of the Adriatic. Close enough for all to feel the magnetism, there stands the most beautiful icon of Renaissance glory and, like so much that can attract tourism, a place too lovely to be left in the hands of its natives, the Serenissima itself, Venice.”
Marius Brill, Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart

 

From http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/463642

 

Why she smiled

from Making Love – A Conspiracy of the Heart – Chapter 4 In Which

She smiled because there wasn’t much else to do. She smiled because at least she knew where she was going in life. She was going down. She found some reassurance in the steadiness of her descent. Last night and the express elevator of her life had dropped down another few floors, it had found yet further unfathomable cellars to fall to. Bing Bong. Sub Basement 101, Lady’s Separates, Loneliness, Humiliations, Women’s Unwashables and other Feelings of Dirtiness. And the doors swish open and there is the cavernous despair department, with all the sad salesgirls, with mascara blotted tears, waiting to spray her with their latest perfumes.

‘This is ‘Grief’ by Tristesse. Can you smell the evocative pungence of rejection?’

‘Try ‘Neurosis’ by Chagrin the compulsive scent of anguish, each drop squeezed from an aching heart.’

‘This is our latest, the dolerous odour of ‘Lu’, an Eau de Toilette for the woman who knows just what her life is heading down. You will find it is at its most fragrant when you flush.’