Cashing in on the Golden Age of Filth
Sunday 11 April 1993
'You haven't heard about her?'
Four of us, enervated by boredom, lying about on cushions, watching a woman pop singer on television. The woman, who wears tight jeans, sways her hips and opens her mouth wide.
'So . . . what about her?'
'Look at that mouth. That mouth. That'll give you a clue.'
'What? What does she . . . do?'
'John used to know her. And she, she . . .'
John says: 'She was, how should I put this, a great one for going down on you . . .'
'What, you mean . . ?'
'A monster for oral sex.'
'Used to love it.'
'Yeah, look at that.'
We watch, mesmerised, as the woman opens her mouth, going for the final crescendo of her song; fascinated, we're staring at her heavily lipsticked lips, her teeth, gums, tongue, contemplating this woman's mouth as if, somehow, her proclivity for oral sex is an abnormal thing, as if it's at all surprising . . . and I say: 'Just hang on a minute . . .'
And have you had a conversation in the last couple of weeks about how Philip Larkin liked looking at pictures of women in the nude? I've had a few myself. Typical example: 'Look at this. It's extraordinary. What a filthy old sod.'
Me: 'What's that?'
'I mean. The dirty old man. Used to read porn mags, apparently. Look.'
'Yes . . . my God. That's . . . amazing.'
Amazing? That a fusty 1950s bachelor liked looking at pin-ups? Surely not? But yes] It's true] Naked . . . breasts] Pictures of scantily clad women] And not just one - lots of them] This guy, this mid-century librarian who published poems about his sexual frustrations, didn't just buy one dirty mag, and look at it, and decide it was boring, and chuck it away. Oh no - he bought one after another] And he . . . kept them in a box]
There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when biographers of famous people did not write about the routine filth in the lives of their subjects, because their publishers would have refused to publish it. So of course, when the biographers started to include the filth, people couldn't get enough of it - it was a novelty, and, even now, the novelty hasn't quite worn off.
So when you read the biography of, say, Laurence Olivier, you don't apply your normal mental faculties and think: 'Ho hum, so what if this prancing old luvvie had a homosexual affair?' You think: 'What? Laurence Olivier? Bisexual? What next?'
And when you read about Mozart and his love of lavatory jokes, you don't think: 'Well, about half the people I know like lavatory jokes.' You bring it up at the dinner table.
You wait until the conversation gets round to Mozart, and then you say: 'Apparently there was nothing Mozart enjoyed more than a good laugh about diarrhoea.'
And people say: 'No]'
'Oh yes. He used to write letters about it to his sister.'
'But . . . I don't believe you] Surely a man capable of writing those symphonies, those operas . . .'
'But I assure you - the letters exist. His biographer found them.'
The Golden Age of investigative biography, though, is coming to an end. For one thing, the more filthy details we're subjected to, the less filthy they seem. Racking my brains for three minutes, I realise I actually believe that: John F Kennedy had sex with hundreds of women, James Dean hung around gay clubs and had people burn him with cigarettes, Daphne du Maurier was a lesbian, Marilyn Monroe was weird and kinky and had an abortion every few months, Elvis Presley died on the lavatory after bingeing on hamburgers, J Edgar Hoover conducted witch-hunts against communists during the day and then went home in the evening and changed into lacy knickers and garter-belts and ponced about in them, and John Lennon was . . . what? Sexually complex? Egotistical? A man who preferred his own company? Yes - he was . . . pretty much like the rest of us, in fact.
Also, now that celebrities have seen the marketing potential in biographical muckraking, they have begun to pre-empt their biographers by doing it to themselves - celebrities of all sizes, from Madonna to Home and Away star Craig Thomson ('My ladylust ties me to bed and slaps me]' - News of the World).
It's easy to imagine Madonna's biographer, poring over her posessions, years after her death, hoping to arrive at a biographical Damascus, a moment that might be the subject matter of endless publicity interviews - the moment when he or she opens the last of the boxes and crates and finds . . . no porn at all. No sexy underwear, no kinky letters, no whips or chains or dildoes or thigh-boots . . . now that would be interesting. But will it ever happen?
John says: 'Just imagine it - that mouth.'
The song is coming to an end, and we get another close-up of singer's face; eyes batting, lips twitching.
'Whoar] Would you look at that]'
I say: 'John, have you ever had a girlfriend who, you know, doesn't like oral sex?'
'I mean - have any of your girlfriends . . . not liked it?'
'So - what's all the fuss about?'
He thinks for a moment, and says: 'Yes, but that's not the point.'
And in a way, he's right. Silently, we watch the last few moments of the song, all of us looking at that lipstick, those teeth, with absolute fascination and reverence, in our modest way making the most of the Golden Age of Filth while it lasts.-
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