Tell Me What You Read: Wendy Bryant

In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

This week, Wendy Bryant, senior lecturer in occupational therapy at the University of Essex, artist and dog-walker

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

I read James Joyce at school: I found the symbolism helpful later in the literal world of occupational therapy, especially the notion of an epiphany. Rebecca West: I worked through them all when I was a student and newly married and newly qualified, feeling a bit homesick living in Coventry and struck by the Judge and the evocative Thames estuary landscapes. In my first job, dealing with the grim realities of dementia and stroke rehabilitation and amputations etc, it was good to escape to her world where things were never quite what they seemed. Later when I was doing a PhD in my 40s, Clare Allen wrote Poppy Shakespeare, and that confirmed and challenged my research and made me review much of my career working in mental health.

HobanI’ve read pretty much everything Russell Hoban wrote, starting with The Turtle Diary as a teenager, Riddley Walker etc, right through to his last novels a few years ago. I particularly love Kleinzeit and have used it a lot in teaching to expose the imaginative possibilities of the illness experience and how health professionals do or don’t engage with that.

Will Self is in a similar vein, with the brutal realities of Liver and Dr Mukti. Most recently Umbrella brought my experiences of working in asylums vividly alive, it was like we had been in the same corridors. His novels help me digest the difficult memories.

Terry Pratchett: Granny Weatherwax is my role model, I love the concept of first, second and third thoughts and use that idea a lot when I’m struggling with something. I adore the Unseen University and the academics, use as a reference point in my academic life. I use his books as a treat for when I am taking a break as they’re so absorbing and easy to read. DEATH has been a great comfort to me.

China Mieville: I’ve read The City and The City, and Perdido St Station very recently. I am particularly fascinated by utopias and dystopias and found the idea of whole cities only existing if you knew how to look a particularly useful idea for moving on from the limitations of a utopia. That probably doesn’t make sense, sorry. I do love a good complicated adventure, again to escape the demands of my life.

PullmanPhilip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series: so many rich ideas – cutting windows into other worlds, the horror of institutional cruelty and barbaric science, the occupational focus of the utopia at the end, with its environmental themes. These things resonate with my own research and practice focus. I have read those books several times but never found a satisfying audio version. Unlike Stephen Fry reading J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which supported me through many journeys, to and from work and elsewhere, with useful and easy insights into teaching and learning!

CheekIf you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?

I wish Mavis Cheek would write more books: I used enjoy her writing. Fay Weldon is funny but a bit brittle. My real comfort reading is J K Rowling or Terry Pratchett. But, bizarrely, if I know I’ve got some quality reading time ahead (holidays etc) I’ll read non-fiction.

What reading do you choose for a long journey?

Depends how I’m travelling. For the train, a Terry Pratchett or nonfiction. I loved a book about bees which a friend lent me. For the plane, an easy read that I can pick up and put down. For the car, an audiobook. David Mitchell is fantastic for audiobooks: Number9dream and The Bone Clocks were awesome. Something just demanding enough to keep track of. Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro was an extraordinary experience: I was so embarrassed when I realised I had my car window down at the traffic lights for a particularly lewd bit.

TheRoadCormac McCarthy’s The Road: so bitterly awful that when I got home I carried on listening, tears streaming down my cheeks.

Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

I tend not to read if I’m bored. Don’t really get bored to be honest. If I’m bored with what I’m reading (I know, different question) then I either just abandon it, or read gardening magazines, Private Eye, the Guardian. When I was younger I suppose I must have read books when I was bored.

What was your last huge reading disappointment?

I think it was a book called Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. It should have been so good. It really should have. But I realised I wasn’t interested and didn’t care about domestic life with children. Ten years ago I would have loved it, but not now. Like the shopaholic books and Bridget Jones, I’m past all that. I haven’t found much about middle aged women with complicated lives.

coastAnd finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

This Luminous Coast, a book about the Essex coastline by Jules Pretty. I first spotted it in 2012, and a few weeks later bought it out of curiosity. I didn’t read it of course, because I didn’t have time, first because of a series of funerals and then my mother was ill. Then the job at the University of Essex came up. Within a few months I was looking for a reading escape while temporarily living back with my parents. The book was wonderful: it felt as if I was exploring every step along the coast. A curiously familiar journey not just because I grew up in Essex but also because I found myself disagreeing with the author at times, and laughing along at others, just like I was doing with my parents. The best surprise of all came after I’d finished the book: my mother read it and before I knew it my dad had read it too. I’ve never known that to happen before!

If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.

Next week: Martin Fowler, software developer, incessant traveller and author

1960s fetish magazines and ‘deviant’ porn: Gillian Freeman’s The Undergrowth of Literature

Freeman 1
The artwork is curiously ahead of its time: this paperback edition was published in 1969, but the soft line of the air-brushing reminds me irresistibly of early 1970s album covers, and of Alan Aldridge’s glorious artwork in The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1973).

I tripped up over this remarkable 1967 study of fetish magazines in an academic second-hand bookshop, looking for something on magazine history. I didn’t notice till later that the cover presents a rather stylised bondage scene, and so I decided that perhaps I wouldn’t be reading this on the plane. When I did read it, at least two men of my acquaintance offered eagerly to borrow it, but I have to say, The Undergrowth of Literature is not a fun read. It’s book history and sociology combined, using a vast amount of very specialist magazines. It made me glum and depressed.

This may have been Freeman’s objective: to present pornography in 1967 as being pleasurable would have courted prosecution. She very carefully avoids saying that readers took pleasure (or relief, joy, happiness, or a welcome sense of community) in this kind of reading. This is a pioneering work on a darkly shadowed area of the modern magazine market that we don’t often come across in periodicals studies: popular magazines about sex in all its non-standard forms. Freeman’s writing is mostly objective, straightforward and forthright, though very dated in some of the terms it uses, and in the contemporary attitudes that it betrays. Here’s another warning to trumpet loud and clear: if you read this book, do not expect up-to-the-minute awareness or language sensitivity about the politics and rights of transsexuals (now transgender), homosexuality or participants in bondage or flagellation, all lumped in together as ‘deviants’. ‘Deviance’ is used hundreds of times, an inescapable reminder of how in the later 1960s the very idea of a transsexual was something pitiable and unnatural.

In all other respects Gillian Freeman is a humane and empathic narrative voice, and mostly non-judgemental. She knows quite a lot about sex magazines. In 1961 she published The Leather Boys, her fifth novel, about working-class homosexuality, released as a biker film in 1964, starring Rita Tushingham. Her writing of The Undergrowth of Literature is praised by the eminent psychiatrist David Stafford-Clark, who had been an expert witness during the trial over the illegality of publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one assumes on the side of Penguin Books. However, he drops a crashingly patriarchal brick in his Foreword, by criticising her use of humour when discussing these serious subjects. ‘If Gillian Freeman has taken a certain refuge in flippancy, it is only because, as a woman as well as a writer seeking to find love, and finding all too often anything but love in this exposure of pornography, she would have recoiled in disgust had she not been able to retain a certain salutary detachment. The price of that detachment in her case has been a deliberately feminine whimsical humour; and to that of course she is entitled, since it has been left to the composition of this foreword to supply the heavier and more determinedly scholarly material’.

This doesn't suggest cheerful reading
This doesn’t suggest cheerful reading

Well, that’s nonsense. Freeman gives a perfectly sound scholarly basis for her findings in her first chapter, and there is no flippancy (a lack of respect for serious issues, expressed with superficiality, shallowness and glibness) or ‘feminine’ humour (there is no such thing) in this book. There is, however, facetiousness (showing disrespect for pompousness and arrogance) to illuminate ‘normal’ perspectives on the anecdotes and practices that Freeman describes. The way she cocks a snoot is pure Monty Python, and I would like to think that her contemporaries, Messrs Cleese, Palin, Jones, et al could have been urged to read this book by Graham Chapman, who as a gay man and a doctor could well have known about it.

So, onto the sex magazines. Freeman eases us into the world of dodgy periodicals by beginning with mainstream women’s magazines. Her feminist critique of the range of their attitudes to sex, ‘purity’, the boredom of housewifery, and the role of the woman in the home should be required reading for any scholar of women’s magazines of the 1960s, as it is the most intelligently researched study that I’ve read for this period.

We segue from anxious girls wanting advice about straying fiancés to the magazines that sent those men straying in the first place. Penthouse and Playboy are of course still household names: we also learn about King (slightly into fetishism), and Lui  (a French version). Moving onto queer and camp magazines, Freeman takes us through the interests catered for by Amigo (published in Denmark), Physique Pictorial, Trim and Male Classics. With Freeman, it is hard not to snort with delight at these titles, because this is territory already well-explored for laughs by the satirists who released British society from the restricted viewpoints of the 1960s (Python included). This subject is already sodden in facetiousness by association. We can take it seriously, but only by focusing on the human needs and social restrictions that produced these magazines in the first place.

Freeman points out that since homosexuality was at that time illegal in the USA and in the UK, body-building was the accepted cover for magazines celebrating masculine bodies. She praises Mattachine, Tangent and One as being among the best of the magazines for gay men. What I found a little troubling was how she described the junior versions of these, such as ‘Junior, an American pictorial for fifteen to nineteen year olds’, and the young boy models featured in Male Classics and Trim Quarterly, posing naked to show their bodies. To be fair, she does raise the question of paedophilia as being served by these particular magazines, but only as a side issue. There are no flip remarks here, just the steady presentation of the increasingly unpleasant associations of young male bodies exposed to the buyer’s desire. The recent revelation of how the Paedophile Information Exchange attempted to inveigle its way onto the British civil liberties agenda in the 1970s shows quite how differently we protected adolescents and children from sexual predation then.

Freeman presents a similarly uncomfortable pairing of jolly jokes (not hers) about ‘fladge’ and sadism in sex. Her evidence from graffiti and requests for advice from magazine columnists gives a pretty strong sense that flagellation really could well have been (even still be) the maladie anglaise. The chapter begins with spanking, and some very racy fiction from Justice Monthly, followed by a deluge of evidence about the normalisation of hitting for pleasure from the Victorian period onwards, public school traditions very much included. By incorporating fiction into this discussion, since there is apparently a great deal of it for readers to browse amongst, Freeman shows how even Enid Blyton encouraged and rationalised hitting children for their own good, and quite often for their pleasure. Good grief, how times have changed.

More hard-core flagellation stories are kept for the next chapter, in which sadism, brutality and really horrible combinations of sex, rape and violence are found in the pages of Man, Man’s Story, Man’s True Danger and Men Today. There is the same obsession with brutal Nazis in these extremely niche magazines that I remember from the boys’ Commando comic books that my brother and I read in the 1970s, only the Nazis in these 1960s men’s magazines are very obviously female in over-tight uniforms and no personal boundaries. One of the main markets for such a focus on selling brutality and sex together was the sado-masochistic community, which is where the real pornography emerges; absolutely, definitely, NSFW, or anywhere outside total privacy, actually. I scrambled through that section, not wishing to look too closely at its many anecdotal extracts.

I urge any reader who has studied Gender Studies to be gentle with chapter seven, on transvestisism: the theories and terminology have moved on since the 1960s, and Freeman must simply be regarded here as a historical commentator. She clearly feels deeply about the sad stories and repressed unhappy lives that she picks out from the magazines and novels. What’s missing in her account is the joy the fulfilment from cross-dressing that readers of these magazines must have felt. There is also almost no sense of solidarity, whereas both are completely central to the transvestite and transgender communities today. Magazines like Turnabout, Men in Skirts and Skirted Men appear now as powerful, pioneering locuses of support and affirmation of a then underground way of life. The stories that these magazines published are fantasies of sex, submission and fabulous textiles, some seriously astonishing and not a little alarming for the outsider. The magazine The Art of Female Impersonation exemplifies how male-oriented this chapter is: very little is said here about women ‘passing’ as men.

In the chapters on bondage and rubber, the magazine titles continue to impress by their audacity and openness: Bound, Bizarre Life, Betty Page in Bondage, and Rubber News. The evidence of latent and active paedophilia in the stories of men tying up their pubescent daughters is clearly of psychological or legal concern, for incitement if nothing else. The inventiveness in this kind of fiction in pretending that the incest angle was completely normal was almost as disturbing as the young boys in the body-building magazines. Throughout the book, Freeman shows us a range of scenes that will shock, horrify, amuse (so patronising) and revolt us. It’s important that we, in 1967 and thereafter, know that this material exists.

The stories and anecdotes from her really astonishingly extensive survey concerns the eagerness of many wives to submit to spanking and being dressed up in rubber. Men do this too, of course, but, once again, I was reminded forcibly of the Monty Python sketch ‘Mice and Men’ (see the link here), in which ‘eating cheese’ and ‘dressing up as mice a bit’ was a splendidly funny euphemism for any ‘deviation’ you fancied laughing at. How strange and how human that humour is the automatic response to something that has the potential, for some people, to be horrifying.

Lesbianism is allowed its own space, with a fairly perfunctory survey of the themes that the magazines pursue. Arena Three, Buttock Fetishism and Breast Fetishism seem to be the leading titles for the market at this period. The pornography seems to have been as violent as anything aimed at straight male tastes, but with more women. Freeman seems to have had trouble finding as many periodicals aimed at women on women as she found for a male market, and assumes therefore that women simply don’t want to read them. I think this is questionable. The final chapter is a provocative look at the Anglophone obsession with caped and costumed superheroes. Deviation and fetishisation are everywhere, even in The Avengers: both the US and the British versions, with superheroes and Mrs Emma Peel in latex.

And now for a nice cup of tea. I think we need it.





Tell Me What You Read: Kenny Farquharson

In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

KennyThis week: Kenny Farquharson, journalist, formerly deputy editor of Scotland on Sunday, now columnist and senior writer for The Times. 

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

One is the journalism of Neal Ascherson in The Observer in the 1980s. His columns – about the Polish August and the rise of the Scottish home rule movement, especially – were always about people rather than events. Every story was a human story. Just as important, his columns were beautifully written. They had elegance and clarity.

The second might seem a bit strange for a hard-bitten hack, but it is the experience of reading and writing poetry when I was at school and university. It taught me how to be picky about choosing the right word, and to be brutal about excising words that were superfluous. It showed me how a place, or an emotion, or an event, could be brought to life with a line of words.

McCaigIf you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?

Comfort reading is Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Norman MacCaig.

What reading do you choose for a long journey?

For a long journey I like a short book. There is something deeply pleasing about turning to page one as the train is pulling out of the station or the cabin crew are going through the safety drill, and to read the final page just before it’s time to collect your bags.

Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

My ‘oh Lord, I’m bored’ reading is primarily Twitter. There is always something to divert/interest/amuse/outrage you on Twitter. It never lets you down. Alternatively, the magazines from the weekend editions of The Times and The Guardian. I am so old, I still refer to these as ‘the colour supplements’.

CrawfordWhat was your last huge reading disappointment?

I need to name names here. It was a book by poet and critic Robert Crawford, called On Glasgow and Edinburgh. From the blurb I took it to be an examination of the rivalry between Scotland’s two great cities, highlighting their contrasts, through an examination of their history and culture, heavy on anecdotes and full of insight. A great subject.

I’d saved it up for a summer holiday and was really looking forward to it, because I admire Crawford as a poet and an academic. Disappointment came as early as the first few pages, in which he made clear he would largely be ignoring popular culture, sport, music, food, folk music and most contemporary history. It would instead lean heavily on obscure literary journals of centuries past. Bummer.

I think I’ve had the same experience with a Crawford book: he needs a tough editor. And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

MooreOne of those wee, small-format books you buy at the till in a bookshop as a whim purchase while paying for something else. Published by Faber, it’s a short story by Lorrie Moore called How To Become A Writer. Slight, funny, clever and unexpectedly moving.

If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.

Next week: Wendy Bryant, senior lecturer in occupational therapy, and artist

Death on the walls at the Waterloo Panorama

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf you ever go to Waterloo, a 20-minute drive south of Brussels on the motorway, you’ll find a very small village entirely focused on the tourist site. It’s dominated by a massive conical mound with a stone lion on top, and a 19th-century circular building housing an epic panoramic painting of the Battle of Waterloo –  the Waterloo Panorama. You have to pay a swingeing €13.50 (£12) to go up the mound and go into the Panorama, which amounts to approximately 20 minutes of visit, depending how fast you are climbing the 226 (very steep) steps up and down the Butte de Lion (the massive mound), or lingering in the Panorama.

The Panorama is housed in a rotunda specially built in 1911, and was painted by Louis Dumoulin in 1912. It has been restored here and there over the past century, and various dignitaries, including our dear Queen, have been to look at it, their fading photographs displayed in a shabby exhibition space underneath the Panorama’s viewing gallery. The gift shop at the foot of the Butte de Lion has so many Napoleonic books, figurines, model cannon, fridge magnets and tapestry cushion covers that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Napoleon had won the battle. Waterloo is in the French-speaking part of Belgium (only just) so the marketeers know their market. There is a very powerful fondness in France even now for Napoleon, and for the might-have been counter-factual history if he had not been defeated in 1815 by the Allied nations by now very tired of his military aggression.

Waterloo 3The Butte de Lion was built on the site of the wounding (not the death) of the Dutch Prince of Orange during the battle. The massive monument was designed by its engineer, working for the Prince’s upset father William I, to commemorate the Allied victory. Because the earth was taken from the surrounding battlefield, battlefield archaeologists now have to work very hard and minutely to retrieve material from this date, compared to artefacts from much more recent wars in the same location. The fields around the Butte are flat and sown with crops, and there are one or two solitary monuments to the battle in neighbouring villages. It’s a very peaceful and fairly sleepy spot (when there are no tourists), so the horrific slaughter of thousands of men commemorated in the Panorama is quite a contrast to the bucolic surroundings, and the rampant French nationalism in the gift shop.

You enter the rickety but venerable structure by coding your ticket number into the door lock, and then go up an elegantly curved double flight of wooden steps into a first-floor circular space. This houses the 360-degree view of the battle, painted in oils, and assisted by some simple but effective models of horse corpses and battered bits of fencing and wall in the foreground. You stand behind a viewing rail and walk round slowly, or rotate on one foot, mesmerised by close-up scenes of heroic death and dying.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the cylindrical wall the painting shows men on horseback in lively coloured uniforms and splendid headgear charging with lances, exuding heroism and nobility. A cowering battalion in green are standing their ground as large grey horses and pointed weapons hurtle towards them on all sides. The soundtrack naturally omits the screams and curses and raging agony of the sound of dying men and horses. Instead we get a gentle loop tape of subdued rumblings (carts? artillery?), a hint of bagpipes (the Belgians are very keen on the pipes), and encouraging shouts as if officers were rallying their doughty men for another charge. There is a sense that somewhere out of sight, bodies are exploding, but we’re not talking about it.

Panorama 1The Panorama projects a sentimental visual reinforcement to the idea that dying in battle is noble and desirable and a generally good thing. Yet there is a lot in the Panorama to show the detail not usually talked about in nineteenth-century battle paeans. Given that the painting was created only two years before the First World War (the German advance probably passed through Waterloo on or about 20 August 1914), Dumoulin was remarkably predictive in recording how pointed metal weapons go into and out of the flesh of men and their horses at speed, even if he did not show much of the blood that would naturally accompany this. Crude pistols are held in wavering hands as scared men try to kill each other. The expressions of the soldiers and horses are dramatically visible, as are many extremely nasty ways of dying. The speed of the cavalry charges is conveyed masterfully, as is the sense of impending collision and a brutal crushing underneath hooves for the soldiers in the way.

Panorama 4As you walk around the Panorama helpful plaques at foot level tell you what you are seeing – Marshall Ney at the head of his troops, the Dutch forces rallying again – and also where the stars of the show can be found. Napoleon at the head of his staff is a tiny, white-coated figure in the far distance, well away from any battle. Wellington is a little closer, and seems to be moving up to the edges of the melée, but there is a healthy distance between him and his senior officers, and any chance of death. Some horsemen are tearing away from the battlefield, probably couriers, not deserters. Local farms are burning, and the crops (this is June) are crumpled underneath hooves, bodies and artillery wheels.

One walks around and around, studying the faces and looking at the dispositions of the men and their regiments (the history of the battle has been so thoroughly researched as to make it possible to identify an intact Napoleonic skeleton simply by the initials on a box. The more you look, the more depressed and miserable you feel, looking at the supposed faces representing dead men, with their leaders safe at the back, and with no proper acknowledgement in the tourist presentation outside that these monuments represent murder and slaughter, not the national glory sold in the gift shop.