Howard Jacobson: Beckham's package leaves a lot to be desired

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The subject of this week's dissertation is the banality of beauty once it is harnessed to the needs of commerce. Or, put another way, David Beckham's dick.

Not the anatomical thing itself – to that, I beg readers to understand, I have neither warrant nor desire to put my mind – but the unsubtle photographic intimations of it seen, bent double or maybe even treble, as part of a major H&M underwear campaign, on giant billboards all over the country.

If an anecdote I have just read about the aristocratic French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon is true, he insisted on being woken by his valet every morning with the words "Rise, Monsieur le Comte – you have great things to achieve". Is that the way it is in the Beckham household, I wonder. Does a valet rouse the footballer from his slumbers with the words "Rise, Mr Beckham, you have to pose in your H&M underpants and show the world your package"?

It is not my intention to disparage Beckham. I don't see it as a mark against him that he is no philosopher. Achievement comes in many forms, and giving pleasure is one of them. I was there – there in the sense of sitting in front of my television – when the young Beckham announced his arrival as a footballer extraordinaire with that famous quicker than the speed of thought lob from the halfway line. Simultaneously muscular and graceful, he seemed, a beautiful boy-man with a heroic body and a beguilingly shy smile. He is one of those rare beings you would go to great lengths to amuse, in the hope of awakening that smile, and I don't know whether the same could have been said of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon.

I can't pretend I ever got the point of Posh (but then it's hard to see the point of many marriages), and I don't hold with tattoos ("Ye shall not print any marks upon you: I am the Lord": Leviticus 19:28 – as Kabbalists, the Beckhams should know that), and I think it's bad practice to name your children after the places in which they were conceived (my son was conceived in North Manchester but his mother and I never once considered calling him Cheetham Hill), but, otherwise, I like Beckham.

As for any imputation of jealousy on my part, now is as good a time as any to confess that I was offered a modest modelling contract myself recently – not from H&M, needless to say, and not one in which I would have had to take off any clothes; it was more what you might call "mind modelling" – but, whatever you choose to call it, I turned it down. Yes, the money would have come in handy – as the Beckhams, too, must have thought – but some ways of earning it are seemly and some are not, and while footballers and novelists are unlikely to see eye to eye about what constitutes seemliness, I think that publicly showing the outline of your penis, even in a horizontal position – or do I mean especially in a horizontal position? – crosses the line, whatever business you are in.

It's the indecent decency, the invitation to guesswork, the quasi-concealment and the strange strangulation of what's concealed, that create the banality I spoke of earlier. Had this David done as Michelangelo's did and bared himself entirely, as a tribute to abstract beauty, it would have been a different matter. What makes these posters at once fatuous and lewd are the pants. In the days I spoke a little Yiddish, we called them unterhasen or gatkes, though, strictly, gatkes denoted long johns. Either way, Yiddish reminded us of the risibility of Homo sapiens in underwear.

The Beckhams report that their children are amused by the spectacle of their dad playing peepo with his dick. I would not have been much amused myself had he been my father. My mother in lingerie for all the world to see the same. Here is the reason for thinking twice about turning yourself into the sum of your genitalia: it compromises whatever else you are. It is a sort of blasphemy against the self.

To those who say I take this matter too seriously, I reply that when it comes to the sexual organs, the only sin is frivolity. I don't, of course, expect Beckham to agree until he is an old man wondering where it all went wrong. For the moment, while flashing those shy Bambi glances he delivers as adroitly as he once delivered free kicks, and admitting that he blushed when he saw himself exposed all over Super Bowl, he acknowledges no transgression. "I love underwear," he announced on American radio. "I love wearing it."

Whereas for you and me, reader, the confession that someone loves underwear, and what is more loves wearing it, would signal the end of all meaningful conversation, and maybe even the end of all meaningful life, it is always possible that for the Beckhams it constitutes talk at its most absorbing. "I love wearing underwear. What do you love wearing?" "Vests." "Wow! Really?" "Yeah, and socks." "No! What about you? What do you love wearing?" "Shoes." "Shoes?" "Shoes." "Cool."

Meanwhile, sales of H&M gatkes are reported to have gone through the roof. So, come the next inner-city disturbances, we know what the rioters will be plundering. As for the numbers of men trying to train their dicks to grow horizontally, that is a matter strictly between them and their doctors.

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