Striptease, verse and fleas

`Song of Myself' doubles as an instruction manual in the erotic proclivities of the First Philanderer
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The Independent Culture
AMERICAN SCIENTISTS claim they've found the bit of the human brain that decides whether or not a thing is worth remembering. Though lots of brain areas hum into action when looking at a view or a photograph, it's only the right pre-frontal lobe that decides whether or not to log it in the memory banks. That at least accounts for President Clinton's selective memory for what he gives young women. It's because of his right pre-frontal that he's still being asked about the dress, the brooch, the hatpin and the volume of Walt Whitman's poetry that he allegedly gave Monica Lewinsky. It's not prevarication or mendacity that he's guilty of here, just that darned wayward lobe.

But of all the gifts Clinton "could have given" the lovely Monica, the most significant is that volume of poems. There's an eerie conjunction between the shaggy-bearded seer of American letters and the clean-cut lothario of the Oval Office that has not been properly explored until now. The President's admiration for Whitman goes beyond a literary appreciation of his immensely long, meandering rhapsodies of Americana. Clinton also gave his wife a volume of Whitman as a wedding present. It's possible he dishes out Walt's collected works to any females he feels attracted to, as a warning of what they may expect to encounter at his hands.

Whitman's most famous poem is "Song Of Myself", an epic burst of crowing narcissism. It doesn't take much hindsight to see how Clinton might identify with it. At one point Whitman actually asks, "Have you outstripped the rest? Are you the President?" And we can imagine Bill striding the swirly carpet of the White House, book in hand, nodding vigorously, before going on to the section containing the words, "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from." Got that, girls? There's nothing grubby or degrading about anything you may be asked to do, since the Presidential droit de seigneur enables it.

Those who've read Christopher Hitchens' revelations about what Clinton and Monica got up to in private - the "unconsummated oral sex" she performed on his clothed and vertical frame, followed by Ms Lewinsky's stepping back, removing her kit and doing a little dance to encourage her inamorata to pleasure himself - may marvel at the one-sided nature of the business. And now that she's told the grand jury how he fondled her both upstairs and down (as I'm afraid we used to say in our teens), you may wonder why he didn't go the whole hog.

The answer, it seems, is also in Whitman's poem. "I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy," he writes. "To touch my person to someone else's is about as much as I can stand."

It all becomes startlingly apposite, as Whitman/Clinton describes someone performing nameless indignities on him: "On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs / straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip / behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial... Unbuttoning my clothes, holding me by the bare waist..." Blimey! There's even a moment when, pre-climatically, he cries, "Enough! Enough! Enough!... Stand back!", as Mr Clinton undoubtedly directed his raven-haired intern.

If ever there was a poem that doubled as an instruction manual in the erotic proclivities of the First Philanderer, it's this one. How poignant that it even prefigures his own remorseful confession - that ever after he was so comprehensively shafted by Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr and Ms Lewinsky herself, he had to admit it was his own fault. How do those other lines of Whitman go?

I am given up by traitors,

I talk wildly, I have lost my

wits, I and nobody else

am the greatest traitor


YESTERDAY I read that impotence, cancer, death and the menopause are all vying for the accolade of "the final taboo". But if a taboo is a subject that ordinary middle-class people would rather you didn't talk about, I have news for you: the last taboo is the flea.

I am sick of having small crawling things in my lovely home. For weeks I have wrestled with the children's nits, have endured their agonised yells as I try to extract the nasty creatures from their pristine locks with a savagely fine-toothed nitcomb. I have watched for signs of headlice, crablice and their less attractive relatives making their way across bathroom towel and kitchen tile. I've had it explained interminably (and have explained it myself in turn) that nits like clean hair to breed in, as well as nectarine complexions to walk across and beautiful faces to live over, but it doesn't make me feel much better. The only good nit, I'm afraid, is the one expiring in the bath, feebly waggling its parasitical tendrils and muttering, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

Anyway, like a war veteran, I bade a final farewell to the nit world and took off on holiday. I wasn't back two hours when I became aware of something prickling my leg as I watched Last of the Mohicans. Nothing nasty, just a tiny scrabbling in the hairs on my calf. I scratched it away. Two more little twitchings and nibblings followed on my other leg. Was I empathising with Hawkeye and Chingachcook in the jungly wilderness? I rubbed the back of my knee, abstractedly.

It was minutes before I pulled up a denim hem to reveal a dozen of the little blighters apparently throwing a party all over my shins. I flicked one off, and two more hopped on. I tried to smack them with a rolled-up copy of Homes and Gardens (no flea infestation supplement this month, I notice) and the little blighters jumped over the descending missile, like Zen acrobats.

The house was seething with them. Woe betide anyone sitting on the upstairs loo, where the flea army would jump impertinently onto their bare knees.

The spare bedroom was like Omaha Beach, with the invaders' bodies carpeting the, er, carpet. If you put a flea-ridden garment in the washing machine, you opened the door 45 minutes later, and a Superflea would emerge, cleansed, full of beans, shouting "Yesss!" and bunching its fists... I trashed the late-nite chemist looking for NilFlea Spray. I spread Rug Patrol flea powder all over the living room until it resembled the den of a hopelessly untidy cocaine baron.

I consulted ancient works of household management, which recommended pestling fleabane and dousing the children with DDT. I called the local council, but they won't touch fleas any more (it's considered "a domestic"). And, like a fool, I asked the advice of neighbours and friends. Disaster. In vain do you point out that this has happened just because the family dog has been away on vacation and the fleas have gone mad in her absence, and that one's home is fundamentally as charming and wholesome as ever. Nobody listened.

The neighbours gave me suspicious looks, as if I'd confessed, or had sneakily shoved a few fleas through their letterboxes. Friends all did that horrible rictus-y smile and backed away surreptitiously, as if I'd trained the little buggers to leap onto their shoulders with grappling hooks.

So here I sit, friendless, dogless, child-deserted (everyone's moved down the country to Granny's flealess haven), with an enormous can of Flea-Off in hand, wondering if I've seen off the last of them. A slow blues is playing in my head. It's that old Eric Clapton number that starts "Once I lived the life of a millionaire..." And how does the chorus go? "Oooh, sure is strange, like a disease / Nobody knows you, when you've got the fleas".