Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Escorts and prejudices

The things you learn in the course of your research. And the way it constantly makes you readjust your preconceptions about all sorts of things. Specifically, what I’m talking about this time is the subject of escorts – some men but mostly women who provide a range of services, usually but not always sexual, to paying clients.

You’d maybe think such a topic didn’t need much in the way of research. We all know, for example, that it’s just prostitution by another name. But even if that false generalisation were true, it still involves people, with characters, personalities, foibles, inadequacies, dreams even, and so the coupling (or whatever form the congress takes) is not always purely mechanical.

At its most clichéd basic, booze gives the man the hunger for a woman, any woman, (and the confidence to make the approach), and the woman needs the money for her next fix so badly that she’ll do anything to get it. Either that, or she’s been shipped in from abroad on the pretence that there’s a real job waiting for her. Apart from what it says about our continuing abuse of women, the bleakness of such transactions seems to me too far removed from the joy of sex to have any meaning or satisfaction.

My research was aimed at creating a realistic character in my latest novel, The Darkness. She’s a woman who’s been raped but who wreaks a sort of vengeance on males by becoming so good at providing what they want that they pay plenty for it. There are plenty of websites offering escort services and, through the contact information on one of them, I got in touch with someone whose postings made it clear that she was articulate, intelligent and had a realistic awareness of her profession. I explained what I wanted and she agreed to answer questions which I emailed to her. Let’s call her Lucy.

On the whole, the perception of ‘upright’ citizens is that transactions involving escorts are sordid, even though they may involve fine dining and rooms at plush hotels. They assume that men who need them are sad inadequates, incapable of ‘normal’ relationships and, however friendly and understanding the escort, the personal attention their money buys them is illusory. The answers I got from Lucy painted a different picture. All my queries about the dangers of the profession were acknowledged but she’d never, in several years of escorting, experienced any difficulties. Indeed, for her the biggest risk was the potential embarrassment if one day she found she’d been hired by someone who turned out to be a friend’s husband. She wrote with tenderness about some of her clients, understood their needs, saw their weaknesses and, in fact, became friends with some of her regulars. And when I asked her if there were times when she wished she hadn’t accepted a commission, she said the worst ones weren’t those with personal hygiene issues or alpha male delusions, but those who bored her. I’m not suggesting she’s a sort of social worker, but the service she’s providing obviously goes beyond physical satisfactions for her clients and also enhances her experience of life.

Before we go any further, I’m not condoning the process, nor am I ignoring the degradation and pain into which it plunges many women. I’m not side-stepping the fact that there are too many men – pimps and clients – whose treatment of women is abominable. These are unpleasant, unfortunate facts. But when you exchange ideas with someone such as Lucy, who knows what she’s talking about, you have to extend your perceptions to include the more positive aspects of the arrangements.

So pigeonholing the whole process of escorting as an activity for losers is far too simplistic. Sex is still a taboo thing for lots of people and I can imagine that, for them, sitting with someone who’s attractive, personable, interesting and (apparently at least) interested in what they’re saying is a sort of release. They can forget whatever their hang-ups are, get rid of the tensions attaching to ‘will she/won’t she?’, and just step outside of the constrictions of their life and pretend for that short space of time that everything’s possible. Some will say that’s still illusory but if, for the duration of that particular ‘now’ they feel fulfilled, it’s real.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Why doesn't life imitate art?

For this blog to make sense I need first of all to set out my religious or spiritual beliefs. That's easy. I don't have any. I care about people but I have no time for the artificial systems they’ve created. I'm not knocking any specific religion but anything which peddles the idea of delayed gratification makes me angry. When people are suffering in this life, why make it even worse by promising that the next one will be better? I realize that most people reading this will disagree with such a position and probably not even have read this far. But, however it appears, it's not my intention to alienate them or get into religious debate. I recognize their right to their own opinions, and that their beliefs are as valid as my absence of belief. This is just the background for the main point I want to make.

For me life is absurd – hugely enjoyable but absurd. As I've said before, perhaps in different ways, it has no purpose, point, direction. This "now" in which I'm tapping these words out on these keys, has no link with the "now" when you're reading them. Like every other "now", they’re contingent, self-contained. There are those who find such a position impossible; they need to feel that they’re following a path and that there’s a destination. They assume that life without meaning is unbearable, empty. On the contrary, it means I see just how precious it is, how lucky I am to have benefited from the accident of birth and how I intend to make the most of it. A melody or a sunset or a kiss doesn’t have to have meaning to make it pleasurable.

But activities such as sports or the arts do have meaning. They follow their own rules, have conclusions, resolutions – they have the good, old-fashioned beginnings, middles and endings. Each symphony, play, novel sets out its themes, its contrasts, then plays them out against or with one another. And the written word brings it all closest to ‘reality’. (This isn’t comparing and contrasting the different art forms – it’s just that words are so definite and relate specifically to our everyday world in a way that musical notes or brush strokes don’t.) And, thanks to that, they give us the illusion of structure, meaning.

Depending on your own position on all this, it may seem self-evident (or crap). I’m only bothering to say it all because my latest novel, The Darkness, (and no, this isn’t a promo for it) has made me aware of things that may have been there subconsciously as I was writing the ones which preceded it but which have only now become more evident. I think I need to write a separate blog about exactly what I mean by that because this one’s already too long, but a theme that’s been there from the start has emerged very strongly in this book. So much so that I now know that the whole series will consist of six novels. Three have already been published, two more are written and the plot of the final one is contained in one of my short stories. I’m not making any great claims to have created a modern Comédie Humaine but there’s (to me anyway) an obvious consistency and progression through the sequence which will lead to an inevitable conclusion.

The beauty (or curse) of not believing in anything, of course, is that these present words may bite me on the bum when the sequence doesn’t turn out as I’m anticipating it will. That’s the nature of absurdity. My main point, though, is that when we’re creating our fictions we’re taking a time-out from arbitrariness and contingency and, in a corny way, cheating them. We’re making a wee universe in which rules are obeyed, sins are punished (or not) and the final full stop comes where we choose to put it, not at some arbitrary point as we’re crossing the road or eating a pretzel or lying oblivious to the probings of the surgeon’s scalpel. Taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that our best reality is the fictions we enjoy as readers and writers. What a pity that life doesn’t imitate art.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Common People

Tears are weird. Why does the body have to produce fluid from our eyes when we feel sad? No doubt the scientists could give me a straight answer about it clearing the crap out of our eyes so that whatever killed the person we’re grieving over won’t get us so easily or something. But, like laughing, it's a puzzling physiological manifestation. In fact, bizarrely, it’s its physiological opposite. When we laugh there are lots of little exhalations – as in ‘ha, ha, ha’ – but sobbing involves a succession of intakes of breath. Does that mean they're connected? (Discuss, with illustrations.)

I don't cry easily. Not for any absurd macho reasons. I wouldn't mind if I cried. I do now and then. But it's the things that provoke the tears that make the reaction even more puzzling. The lump comes into my throat when I hear the pipes and drums, but I think that happens to everyone. There's some visceral thing about the pipes that drags the emotions up out of you. You give them labels such as pride, triumph, defiance but really you’re labelling something that's bigger, more profound than all of them. If I knew what folk-memory was, I’d be tempted to say they’re something to do with that. But I don’t.

No, I start feeling the tears when I'm watching athletics, for example. As I see winners and losers alike flinging themselves down the home straight, striving, overcoming odds, these are the things that pluck at me. But why? It's just somebody running, for God's sake. But this is where the pretension kicks in, because I suspect it's just because they’re striving. They’re maintaining the pretence that there’s structure, meaning, purpose - which, momentarily, in the bubble of their activity, there is. There’s a certain sort of glory in the fact that we do all these things in the face of our absurdity. It's our old friend Sisyphus again, knowing he's wasting his time but still determined to push the rock back up the hill. I think the tears have something to do with the human spirit and hopelessness.

Which brings me to the title of this posting. There's a lot of music (as well as the pipes and drums) that makes me feel sad. But I think the only one which brings a lump to my throat every time is Jarvis Cocker's Common People. It’s the thought of the inequalities that blight our comfortable society, the fact that rich people can pretend to live like common people but opt out when things get unbearable by phoning their dad to take them away from it all. Which further stresses the fact that, for the real common people there's no escape. And yet they tolerate it, some are beaten down and corrupted but many are proud survivors, worth far more than the obscene values society puts on them because of the conditions in which they’re forced to live.

And when the shock jocks and their ilk crow that these common people should just get a job and pull themselves out of the mire, all that does is confirm that the tears are legitimate. It's about humanity but also about the absence of humanity in these and other ill-informed bigots.

Which is all very noble and altruistic, but it still doesn't explain why these bloody glands in my eyes overflow.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Preventable people

‘Preventable people’ was a slip of the tongue by someone being interviewed on the radio today. He meant things that could be prevented from affecting people but I think the slip is much more interesting. Of course, it would be easy to make a list of preventable people. They’d vary according to our political, moral and other beliefs but there’s another, bigger problem. In order to know that they ought to be prevented, we’d need to know why, which means they’d need to exist first and so, by definition, they couldn’t be prevented. All very existential.

And before pro-lifers start putting me on their list of undesirables (or maybe preventables), this isn’t about abortion. I have very clear opinions about that topic which are too profoundly held and too important to be articulated in a trivial medium such as this. No, this is just a linguistic fancy. It’s about the delightfully Orwellian notion of a category of persons who are unpleasant enough, in one way or another, to be considered preventable.

Purists will complain that that implies being prevented from doing something specific but I prefer the blunt, unqualified ‘prevented’. If someone should have been prevented it means there’s nothing about them worth preserving. How satisfying it would be, when faced with a politician mouthing the usual evasions or a celebrity making vacuous pronouncements about their importance or their desire to be alone, to be able to say ‘he/she ought to have been prevented’.

How much nicer history (and therefore the world) would have been if certain people had been prevented. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the verb might be an alternative to ‘elected’. At the polls, why shouldn’t we get ballot papers which allow us to ‘prevent’ candidates as well as ‘elect’ them? Given the representatives we seem to choose, I’m pretty confident that the ‘preventable’ option would be a much better use of the democratic process.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

My videos

Another thing about blogs - you can make them stretch displacement activities so far that, in the end, you don't have to do any writing at all. That's the perfect condition for a writer with my own degree of sloth. I spent ages, for example, trying to bring some videos I'd made (all connected with writing) into this blog so that they could be watched without leaving its comforting embrace. In the end, I failed (ingloriously) and had to resort to inserting a link. Given the depth of my ignorance, that in itself was a huge victory. It's in the column on the left.
If any readers are more knowledgeable about these things than I am (i.e. all of you), I'd welcome advice on making this a slicker, one-touch operation.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Pretentious? Moi?

Gave a talk/reading last night. Usual meagre attendance, confirming yet again the Catch-22 of ‘Only famous people get big audiences and you need a big audience to get famous’. Not that I particularly want to be famous – that would interfere too seriously with my lethargy and I need to keep my priorities straight. But I’d like lots of people to read my books.

Anyway, it struck me afterwards that talking about one’s own writing is difficult. Because if you start claiming things about your intentions, the ‘meanings’ of your symbols, images, etc., the significance of particular themes, or any of the normal stuff that crops up when people talk about books, you can’t help but sound pretentious. I take my writing seriously. I want it to entertain, amuse if possible but also to say something – usually something pretty trite about how human beings treat one another. I marvel at the resilience of some, admire (with a lump in my throat) the astonishing cheerfulness of others in dire circumstances, deplore the apparent determination of those dickheads who patronise others from some baseless sense of their own superiority. And I do this not just by describing them and their actions and circumstances, but by using other subtextual tricks and juxtapositions to try a bit of subliminal persuasion on the reader. But there, you see? Already, that’s making me sound like a candidate for pseuds’ corner.

So what do you do? Let the writing speak for itself? Yes, of course, but that works best when the reader’s tucked away somewhere with just the book and his/her own imagination. And anyway, if you’re just plucking two or three short extracts from a 350 page novel you need to give each some context. So you say something like ‘Well, in the next hundred pages she realises she’s pregnant by the customs officer so her sentence is commuted to thirty years, her seventeen children are put into care in Leamington Spa and the cosmetic surgery is postponed until the surgeon is released from quarantine. Meanwhile, the three orang-utangs have been recaptured but the green one is found to have syphilis and so Laura’s husband has to retrace its steps in order to … [etc., etc.] … and we rejoin Laura in her cell just after the one-eyed warder has zipped himself up and gone home to his lesbian wife.’ OK, that’s stupid, but it’s much more acceptable to an audience than pointing out how I’ve expanded the imagery, fused abstract and concrete, reinforced a particular theme, inverted ethical conventions. Apart from anything else, whoever heard a reader saying ‘Oh goody, he’s inverted the ethical conventions; I can’t wait to see what he does with the Hegelian dialectic’?

I’m not questioning the reader’s sensitivity to things other than ‘the story’ or his/her ability to operate at several levels of comprehension and appreciation; I’m just saying that I find it difficult to do that when it’s my own books under discussion. That probably reveals something sinister about my psyche, some quivering inadequacy. It also reveals my dilemma. I know life is serious but I find it hard to take things altogether seriously.