Joan Smith: If Blair was like an animal in bed, was it a hamster?

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:49

One of the very few conversations I ever had with Tony Blair was about sex. Years later, when I ran into him again at No 10, he didn't seem pleased to see me; the spark had gone, and I came to the conclusion that the Iraq war had come between us. I was against it, he was for it: for that man and this woman, clearly there was just no way back.

Sorry, I got carried away for a moment – a bit like the former prime minister in the passage from his autobiography that's got him shortlisted for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award. You know the paragraph – he's talking about going to bed with Cherie after hearing the news of John Smith's sudden death: "That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct."

What I particularly like about this is the comma before "selfishly". It's pure Mills & Boon, conveying the torrid atmosphere of that momentous night in Islington – I think we should know whether the neighbours felt the earth tremble – without giving too much away. I can't help wondering what exactly Cherie told him – "You'll have to kill Gordon first" might have been helpful – but there's enough to paint a picture of our manly hero gathering strength from The Woman Who Truly Loved Him.

To be frank, I never loved Tony Blair and I didn't even have the hots for him. The feeling must have been mutual because our long-ago conversation about sex was actually about gay sex, specifically, about how many members of Frankie Goes To Hollywood were gay. It wasn't long after their hit single "Relax", but even then it seemed an odd thing to talk about and clearly I should have turned the conversation to Saddam Hussein, who was then embroiled in a war with Iran. The sexual orientation of early Eighties pop stars would never be my starter-for-10, whereas I knew quite a bit about Saddam, having published an article that scuppered his attempt to buy Hawk fighter jets on the quiet.

If only I'd pointed out that Ba'athism was a nasty form of Arab nationalism with no links to Islamic extremism, so many things might have been different. But I allowed myself to be drawn into a conversation about FGTH's singer, Holly Johnson.

Blair is a surprise entry on this year's Bad Sex shortlist because it's usually reserved for novelists. He's up against Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen, but I'm not sure any of them can compete with his frank erotic boasting. Politics is full of alpha males and maybe some of them privately think of themselves as chest-beating gorillas – I doubt whether the "animal" Blair had in mind was a hamster – but not many of them expose their fantasies in print. I bet the actresses who read out the shortlisted extracts at the awards ceremony are already fighting over who gets that one.

I always enjoy the Bad Sex party, but last year I found myself thinking that even good writing about sex would sound pretty foolish if it was read aloud in a crowded room before an audience of hacks and minor celebrities. Sex is one of the trickiest subjects an author has to tackle, lacking the kind of everyday vocabulary that exists for every other area of human experience. Some writers avoid it altogether, but Tony Blair has just plunged right in and shown the rest of us how not to do it.

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