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THE PROMISE OF HAPPINESS
13 March 23
Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much.
I was lucky enough in my mid-teens to discover writing and literature, pornography and drugs, at around the same time.
My working day would begin in earnest at 4:30 when I arrived home from school, sat at the typewriter my father had given me, put a on record or turned on the radio, and resumed work on the novel I was writing about someone like me slowly drowning in misery at school.
I knew at least that writing had to be my ticket into the funkier world that existed a hour away, ‘up London’.
The literature I was reading might be described as hard; Russian, British, French classics from my dad’s library (If I didn’t educate myself, no one else was going to.) But the drugs and pornography available to us were, by contemporary standards, soft.
People would say the country was awash with drugs, but I can’t tell you how hard it was to obtain a bit of crumbly old brown hash. We would score at college gigs, or from hippie friends in pubs like Henekey’s on Bromley High Street or the famous Three Tuns, where there were gigs in the back room.
We would attempt to get high on this terrible brown shit – it was commonly referred to as ‘shit’ – and go and see the The Faces or The Pink Floyd at Crystal Palace Bowl.
It wasn’t until I started taking speed, in the form of little blue pills called Blues, that I saw both how effective and enjoyable drugs could be and what a deleterious effect they could have on your mental health.
Man, those Blues were depressing when you came down from them. The most exciting drug in those days, and the one we all enjoyed the most, was LSD.
It was cheap and we would take it all the time. At parties, concerts and even at home when times got slow.
As for porn, it was difficult in the mid-60s to see an image of a naked woman outside of a classic or Impressionist painting. The magazines we could get our hands on, which were passed around, exposed female breasts but the vaginas were air-brushed and flat.
My first enjoyable experience of pornography was in books. My father had many of the sexually experimental titles like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, and even Ulysses.
The most overtly pornographic novel at that time, and for me the most enjoyable writer - and one I still love to this day - is Henry Miller. The Tropic of Cancer and Miller’s great trilogy Sexus, Plexus and Nexus provided both the great thrill of writing with interludes of pornography which you could masturbate cheerfully to.
At school these were called “one hand reads”; some of the pages got sticky and yellow. It must seem odd now to think that if you wanted a wank you’d read a book. But for a young inexperienced kid like myself, some of these books – particularly the Victorian pornographic ones, like The Pearl – were a revelation.
Since the 1950s, the sexual field had been opening up. And how else but through reading and conversation would you have any idea of what sexuality might involve?
I remember reading about cunnilingus and fellatio for the first time; I was appalled and amazed that anyone would want to put their lips against somebody else’s genitalia.
Victorian pornography also featured dungeons, whipping and other forms of what are now called BDSM. And I was, to say the least, blown away by the possibility of what my future might hold if I could get over my nerves and find a dungeon. These stories were advertisements for the future.
I read The Story of O, as well as Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and was shocked by how literature and extreme sexuality could be so powerful and effective. As my son Sachin recently said, these stories are more than an adolescent’s imagination could conjure themselves.
They draw you into a world of filth and depravity which will remain rewarding throughout one’s life, reminding you how close sexuality and disgust have to remain for sex to retain its edge.
But if you really wanted to learn about sexuality, as opposed to the conventions of courtship and marriage, you couldn’t go to literature, you instead had to seek pornography.
Literature was censored and self-censored, I would have loved to have known what George Eliot thought about anal sex. Great literature was never explicit enough. Why did Swann love fucking Odette so much, what was it about her voice or pussy that made him throw away his life?
It was in the mid-seventies that I began to write pornography for a living. I didn’t do so much of it, just a few articles for the flourishing top-shelf magazine market of the time, mostly sold in Asian corner shops. And I also wrote serious articles about Aubrey Beardsley and the Marquee De Said for semi-serious porn magazines.
It is not easy to write porn. How do you describe an erect penis or an orgasm? Cliches come easily, words like ‘throbbing’ and ‘enormous’ are difficult to avoid. All writing is difficult but finding new language for the sexual act is almost impossible, particularly when one was being paid around £12 per article.
The best way to write about sexuality is to describe its meaning for the participants. But with the kind of magazine porn I was writing, the reader doesn’t want a Lacanian disquisition on desire, but a fat erection. It’s a banal form.
While I was writing little porny stories for absurd magazines, my close friend the Leather and I decided that we would become prostitutes. We would hang around outside Harrods in our best clothes hoping to be picked up by rich women who would reward us for the sexual pleasures we would lavish on them. Luckily for us, and even more luckily for the women, we didn’t get any offers except from a couple of old queens, who we were too coy to go with.
During this punk period, performance artists like Cosi Fanni Tutti exposed themselves in porn magazines as forms of artistic expression. They wanted to outrage, but this also had the effect of bringing obscure pornographic paraphernalia into the mainstream.
At the far end of the Kings Road, in a funny little curiosity of a shop, Viviane Westwood and Malcom McClaren were bringing formally secretive porn clothes like rubber and leather into pubs and clubs and the high street.
Sex can make us lose our minds, there isn’t a day when we don’t read in the newspapers of a pop star, politician or an industrialist doing something guaranteed to ruin their lives for sexual pleasure.
This could of course happen to most of us. Who hasn’t at some time engaged in filthily risky behaviour for the sake of a fantasy or an orgasm? That fantasy and extreme sexuality are at the centre of our culture is something that Freud pointed out at the turn of the 19th century and is relevant today as it ever was.
Pornography and technology advance together. In my lifetime, visual pornography has metamorphosised from crude, badly lit photographs – and what were called ‘Blue Movies’ - to VR headsets, anthropomorphic sex dolls and A.I. deepfakes.
For most of us, fantasy and masturbation are the most exciting thing, if not the most fulfilling thing, in our lives. Pornography isn’t going away, in fact while sex itself remains the same, pornography advances. All of this produces an ethical dilemma, since real sex inevitably involves at least some conversation and negotiation with the other; and there is always the peril of rejection, failure and humiliation. It is difficult to fail at a wank. People are worried that porn and masturbating will replace sex entirely, or that they are more enjoyable.
The drugs that I’ve enjoyed have also become more sophisticated and attitudes have liberalised. I’ve had some great cocaine nights with my children, and I know friends who take MDMA with their kids, though this isn’t something I would do, out of the fear of talking too much.
Sex and drugs go together, like wine and a good meal. The idea isn’t that people should be traumatised by sex, or drugs, but that they should be taught to love them, as essential pleasures.
The age of liberalism is over. We have entered a new era of censorship and self-censorship. Both liberals and conservatives have become insistent on certain things not being said or heard. There is a new terror of offence being given and offence taken.
The new pleasures afforded by technology have created a fear in the population of overexcitement and lack of control. And sometimes sexuality can become degraded in an attempt to render it worthless, mechanical and functional, rather than something that is essential to the human experience.
Unfortunately, the fight for freedoms gained since the 60s have to be fought repeatedly. Sometimes it can feel like we’ve gone into reverse. We have to struggle everyday to hold onto freedoms won, and in the certainty that we can make new ones.