Welcome back, Miss World

How long ago it all seems, those rhetorical battles about what was meant by `beauty'
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The Independent Culture
NEXT THURSDAY is a hot diary entry for the prurient flotsam of London's bookish partygoers. The Literary Review is hosting the sixth of its now-legendary Bad Sex Award parties, at which some hapless toiler in the vineyards of modern fiction will be tongue-in-cheekily awarded a prize for describing a sexual act that, in the view of the judges, is either so inept, so embarrassing or so "redundant" - by which I think they mean "gratuitous", only we don't say that nowadays - it merits special vilification.

They tend to be very good parties, attended, like Ms Cynthia Payne's luncheon voucher revels in Streatham, by both the highest intellects in the land and the most low-rent liggers. The founder of this annual revel is Auberon Waugh, the Review's distinguished editor, a man who once happily enthused about the delights of three-in-the-bath Thai massage parlours, when he was paid to visit them by British travel magazines, but whose fastidious soul now flinches from disgusting, on-the-page bouts of smutty rapture.

Or does it? Mr Waugh spends two pages in the current Literary Review drawing his readers' attention to the rudest bits of the shortlisted novels, with the air of an emcee in a Poland Street porn-parlour, tapping a pointer at celluloid rumps and spread-eagled thighs and saying, "Look at this gentlemen. Dear, oh dear. Listen to the awful liquid noises. See the inept way the hand moves upon the gigantic breasts. Note the inappropriately flying gouts of semen. Lord above, it's so shockingly badly done... ", while his audience moans along in, you know, aloofly critical agreement.

He has never, to my knowledge, suggested there's a counterside to all this - that there may be a way of writing about sex which is worthy of serious attention. This quondam voluptuary hasn't ever suggested there might be a Good Sex Award for well-written, and/or arousing descriptions of what Beckett used to call (in a phrase Mr Waugh might approve) "the cloaca of colonic gratification". Indeed, he seems pleased to think that the nation's novelists are now so nervous of being summoned to receive his prize, they think twice before writing sex scenes, cautiously closing the bedroom door, or dimming the backstreet lamplight, on what once seemed worth a risky paragraph or two.

This seems to me an unwelcome tendency. From Chaucer to Martin Amis, it was always a measure of novelistic talent to see how writers dealt with sex: whether to be clinically precise about it, metaphorical, poetical, brutally realistic, waggish, deadly earnest... One of Julian Barnes's characters says, re his first sexual experience, that he'd been told a lot about it but nobody'd mentioned the little man waving the football rattle at the back of his head - an apercu that's just as true as the fancy list of essences ("uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended") with which Hemingway's Nick Adams describes his first big love.

What a trove of half-embarrassed, half-intuited moments of brilliance would be lost if British writers began to wither under the glare of Mr Waugh's well-bred scorn and became as edgy as Radclyffe Hall, whose 470- page ground-breaking epic of Sapphic rapture, The Well of Loneliness, contains one single moment of sexual description: "That night, they were not divided..." Stop the rot. Somebody must come forward to sponsor a Good Sex Award without delay.

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THE RIVAL attraction on Thursday night is, of course, Miss World, which returns to British screens for the first time in 10 years. After three decades of lucrative ogling, the programme finally packed up its steamer trunk of swimwear and evening gowns, its Maybelline lash-enhancers and numbered wrist-rosettes, and stormed off in 1988, when Thames Television decided not to renew its option. Eric Morley, the unsinkable founder and license holder of the beauty contest, took his show off to the Far East and the Deep South and found a ready worldwide audience there, and networks who wouldn't bellyache about "exploitation" and "sexism". The girls kept turning up as well, smiling and pouting, discussing their global travel plans and their interest in Old People, presumably not having digested the news that the whole enterprise was hopelessly, naffly sexist.

How long ago it all seems, those rhetorical battles about what was meant by "beauty", the body fascism of "vital statistics", the looks-ist hierarchy that implied one face was better than another. In the intervening 10 years, it seems the nature of beauty has changed. From being a merely plastic commodity - at best an irrelevance to human interchange, at worst a form of slavery - it has now become a virtue, a force for good, a thing to celebrate.

Ten years ago, beauty was superficial, capricious, flashy and probably stupid. It went with Samantha Fox and Duran Duran and Thatcherite profiteering. Ten years later, beauty is profound, enduring, discreet and intelligent. Instead of ditzy mannequins, we have supermodels who run companies, instead of flirtatious chanteuses we get Scary Spice in a leopardskin bra. Rather than insisting that bodies are irrelevant, modern culture drags them centre- stage, as we are invited to inspect Sophie Dahl's Monument Valley-like curves in every British magazine, and the Beautiful South sing "She's a perfect 10 - but she wears a 12", in what passes for sophistication on Top of the Pops.

Beauty is politically cool. Entirely because of her looks, personality and desire to Travel the World and Help People, Geri Halliwell becomes special ambassador to the UN. In the host island of this year's Miss World, the homegrown beauty, Miss Seychelles, says "she's proud to show off this paradise to the other ambassadors". Soon the entire diplomatic circuit will be flouncing with indefatigably smiling young women whose hobbies include swimming, ballet and human rights legislation.

I understand they've changed the format of the show: informality, intelligent chat, no swimwear, no parading around like livestock, no lecherous remarks from presenters, no dates with George Best. Excellent, excellent, but they're surely missing the point - which is not that we've worked out how to make the judging of beauty un-sexist, but that we've become relaxed with the idea of beauty for its own sake. It's got nothing to do, any more, with the approval of men.

Having said which, have you seen this year's Miss Israel?

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I'VE SPENT the last few days swimming in an ocean of slang. No longer will I have to puzzle over the phrase "Martin's hammer knocking at the wicket", meaning to be pregnant with twins. No longer shall I cudgel my brains for a picturesque form of words describing oddness, when I have the phrase "He's as queer as Dick's hatband that went nine times around and wouldn't meet". No longer will I be at a loss when the subject of masturbation comes up at fashionable dinner parties. To "meet with mother thumb and her four daughters", to "meet rosie hancock", to "meet mary palm and her five sisters", to "meet your right-hand man" - yes, I've got them all under my belt now, so to speak, waiting for that moment to slip them into the conversation. They are all to be found in the new Cassell Dictionary of Slang, edited by Jonathan Green, a 1300-page compendium of low and rebarbative terminology from criminal haunts, schoolrooms, bawdy houses clubs and street gangs. It's an exhaustive labour of love, which lists 65,000 slang terms for drink, parts of the body, unpleasant people etc.

But what it would have been like, had Mr Green done it the other way round, and begun with the basic words to which all the slang terms refer? You'd have got an entry like "penis" followed by pages and pages listing the 997 slang variants. "Marijuana" would be followed by 707 synonyms. And there are 1,232 words to express sexual intercourse. All prospective candidates for next year's Bad Sex Award must get a copy forthwith.

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