Negroland is a memoir of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s as an upper-class black girl in Chicago. It’s about race, class, position, white socks, prejudice, hair oil and its stains, integration, politics, fabulous clothes, architecture, representation, style, standards and history. Jefferson mixes poetry and lyrics with historical extracts and retellings of events from daily and national life. It’s not an easy read, though it is extremely absorbing as a subject, because Jefferson’s prose is challenging; the readers are not let off lightly, and have to work to be told what we want to know.
Reading this had a peculiar effect on me, digging back into my past life. I grew up in a white monoculture in north-east Scotland. I hope I grew up free from racial prejudice because there was nothing in place to teach it. I do know that I was utterly ignorant about black lives, until I went to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the age of 9 (my scientist father was working at the oceanographical research station for 6 months, so we moved to the US). I noticed over time that all the children in my fourth-grade class who were noticeably, worrying slow at reading were black: that was how I worked out that economic deprivation and not having books at home could also be based on race. My mother volunteered in a day centre for children with learning difficulties, autism, physical and developmental problems, all jumbled in together in a large room in which she was the only white face. My American smallpox vaccination certificate has a ticked box to signify that I wasn’t black. Living in the USA in 1973 was an other-worldly experience. I visited North Carolina again seven years ago, and the smell of the pines and the quality of the heat and dampness in the air came back to me instantly, like a thump of recognition. Jefferson’s book had the same effect on me, in the stories she tells about the segregation her forebears endured, and the heroic toil of black women to make things a little better for the next generation of women.
Because Jefferson’s mother was an beautiful, fashionable woman, knowledgeable about style and design, much of this memoir is about clothes. She describes her mother’s elegant, cultured female society, her clubs and sororities, the passionate identification she and her sister had for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, and Audrey Hepburn, and the race politics they learned by watching them in their roles, learning their lyrics, understanding that Dandridge would never get the Hepburn parts, and why she refused to take the servant’s role as well. Jefferson and her sister had to shine under crushing rules for girls’ behaviour, for black behaviour, for ladies’ behaviour, all at the same time
However, as well as the images of smiling black girls wearing white socks standing by their father’s cruiser on the lake, Negroland is fascinating for the details of the practical politics of integration, of learning the power of refusal against those who choose to accept you when it suits them. Jefferson writes about the interstices, the period when integration was being worked out at pavement level, how neighbourhoods changed for the new black neighbours and how the black middle-classes moved in, held their own, established their own culture, but always had prejudice waiting for them, in the unsafe areas and the states and counties still segregated in all but name. All this is largely unknown to foreigners like me, the black history that can’t be taught in schools, the details that need to be explained or acted out in film scripts, the daily details that made Black Power possible as a movement.
Negroland was an enlightening memoir to read in the week when the extraordinary interview of Rachel Dolezal by Ijeoma Oluo was published. It was a rebuke and a magisterial stare across the colour bar that whites had established, with the oppressive, empowering weight of history behind it. Dolezal chooses to self-identify as black, but no black woman or man can choose to self-identify as white, unless (as in Jefferson’s memoir) they have the genes for fair skin and obedient hair to ‘pass’, should they want to. For Jefferson’s aunts and uncles it was only ever ‘passing’, temporary whiteness on sufferance because it was economically and socially convenient, and no white person should forget that, or presume to travel in the opposite direction.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016, and was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. (Granta Books, 2015), ISBN 078-1-78378-339-7, £8.99
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’.
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.
(Forgetfully and foolishly I wrote this pod script up twice: here in January 2015, and here in Sept 2015. They’re mostly the same, but there will be slight differences. Sorry about that.)
This podcast was written for the letter O, the classic 1960s cartoon strip writer, Peter O’Donnell. He is most famous for his creation of the glorious Modesty Blaise: action heroine, secret agent, assassin, and all-round perfect thriller feminist. For years – really, YEARS – this podcast was the most often downloaded from Why I Really Like This Book, so I’m putting it up here in case the O’Donnell fans want to read what I say instead of hunt down what is now a rather old pod.
Modesty Blaise first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1963, and was a permanent presence in British newspapers until 2001, largely unaltered in style. She was drawn by a series of different artists, but O’Donnell wrote all the stories. In 1965 his first Modesty Blaise book appeared, and came about because when O’Donnell was a soldier during the Second World War, he had noticed a girl in a displaced persons camp. The memory of how this refugee looked, how she held herself, and her confidence, and what her story might have been, stayed with him, emerging 20 years later as a character for an action story. A rather decorative film was made shortly after the first book appeared, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, but the script for that veered wildly away from the original concept.
In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired in her early thirties), who made the money she wanted to through non-vice crimes, but now she is bored. Her sidekick, not her lover, Willie Garvin, is also bored, which is why he loses his touch, and gets caught by a gang in Latin America. MI5 want Modesty to help them with a sticky problem of their own, so they offer her Willie as a favour, and she rescues him from captivity. She accepts that tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to repay, in sorting out a little problem for them. And so the relationship develops: Modesty and Willie become the go-to team for the really dangerous jobs that British Intelligence can’t handle alone. And they win, every time. Casual deaths with no repercussions are standard. The police rarely interfere, and when they do, they do what Modesty wants. There are a lot of set-piece impossible escapes from impossible situations, and many, many single combats, lovingly described.
You’ll probably have spotted that Modesty is pretty much like a female James Bond, except that she’s independent. This independence is crucial for her character: she will not be tied, and she operates following her own judgement rather than following orders. She’s also an armed and unarmed combat expert, a jeweller, a diver and goodness what else. She has a compass in her head that never fails, she has yoga meditation skills that enable her to ignore pain and exhaustion etc, etc. She is effectively a superhero without supernatural powers: she just has an impossible number of phenomenal powers and skills that normal people would be glad to have only one of. It’s a very attractive combination. Did I also mention that she’s drop-dead gorgeous? It should go without saying. Modesty would be a good match for Emma Peel of The Avengers. Remember Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and as Mrs Smith from Mr and Mrs Smith? Modesty preceded her by about 40 years, and she’s better at the job because she does it all without computers or cell phones.
All this would be wasted material were it not for Peter O’Donnell’s writing. He is not quite as good as Ian Fleming for insouciant style, or as good as Geoffrey Household in cranking up the tension, but he comes very close. O’Donnell borrows heavily from Fleming and James Bond in his attention to detail: we hear a lot about the style and colour of clothes, even the kinds of fabrics, and of course we hear a lot about the make of drink, the way of cooking the meat, the colour of the car. On weaponry Fleming is outclassed by O’Donnell, I think, because both Modesty and Willie Garvin are expert in every kind of combat invented by humans, and probably some that O’Donnell invented himself. We hear a lot about throwing knives and a special kind of throwing and whacking weapon that lurks in the back of Modesty’s hairdo. O’Donnell is really good on ingenious places for hiding weapons: time and again Modesty strips off her clothes so she can extract the components of a bomb, or a radio transmitter, or a bow and arrows, from her underwear or her skirt. They’re kept in the seams and under false linings, for verbal titillation. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then.
Modesty is not just a brilliant fighter, marksman, fencer, what have you: she’s also a strategic genius. She computes situations in her brain and produces a solution for every sticky situation. This is where O’Donnell outclasses Household. Modesty and Willie have a very long back history, and so whenever she or he is about to attack an enemy, they can throw words at each other to suggest that this is a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again, and all this time the reader is going ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, hurtling through the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to free Willie from being chained to a radiator by one hand while holding a bomb at full arm’s length in the other, knowing that when Modesty bursts into the room to rescue him she will be mown down by a machine gun. Naturally he gets out of the chain by breaking it one-handed, as you do, and then she drops through the window from the floor above, having shot the machine gunner faster than he can draw. She disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.
Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out before they’re killed for fun. She induces the Austrian fencing champion guard to a duel, kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. One of the leering bad guys comes over to fondle her bloody body in her apparent exhaustion, during which time she picks his pocket of the secret notebook. Willie forges an entry in the secret notebook to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so that he will come over to their side, and get the rest of the captives away to Tangier, leaving Modesty and Willie to build an emergency sand-yacht to get across the desert to a Foreign Legion fort where Willie has the final showdown with the big boss, after performing emergency surgery on Modesty’s shoulder wound, which is now impendingly gangrenous. That caper is particularly complicated, but it is deeply, deeply satisfying. O’Donnell’s plotting is superb.
There is a certain forcedness in O’Donnell’s dialogue, and in his namedropping of brand names and new products. He spells Crimplene with a capital C, because when he was writing, this was an up-to-the-minute social reference. Now, of course, this dates the books quite strongly, but this is part of their attraction: they’re a repository for social history. We can see which words were new to the language in the 1960s by the difference that common usage has made in them now. Initial capitals are a common sign of this, for brand names and for things that are now generic names. We also see different, earlier spellings: ‘git’, for instance, now a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means ‘stupid idiot’, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, mack. It’s linguistic archaeology.
I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as often as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in it, and speak to each other in Arabic over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War world. The Arabic nations were not yet political powers that the west took much notice of. Arabic is also used as a language of civilised values: several times Modesty discusses Arabic poetry as a coded cover for her real intent: I don’t think you’d get that kind of respect in thrillers of a later date.
O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill was just about to be made available to British women, but ladies had to wear stockings, hats and gloves as a matter of course, and were expected to stop working once they married. Modesty preceded the swinging sixties. However, O’Donnell gives her remarkable freedoms. She is a woman, but she is also the best secret agent around. She’s sexualised, in that she has sex with whichever man she wants, but also when she wants and on her terms. This makes her a truly liberated woman, in that she controls her own sex life. It also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached. She has a very loyal and strictly non-sexual relationship with Willie Garvin: he’s played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp in the film, but is always drawn as a very craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. Modesty requires respect for her authority, and is treated throughout as the most powerful and skilful operator in the book. She is never a victim, but is often presented a sexual object, and O’Donnell frequently describes her as wearing her nakedness as if she wore clothes, which helps the imaginations of her readers nicely. One of her techniques for gaining a few seconds while confronting a room of guards or other male antagonists is to walk in on them, stripped to the waist. This moment of leering amazement of course allows to her to shoot them all, while they gawp. It’s a good use of that character’s power, but it’s also a predictable use of sexuality by a male writer.
O’Donnell had some very predictable opinions about women and sexuality in general. In the first book, Modesty is the focus of attention because she is the only active woman in a cast of men. There are two other women in that story, a dancer called Nicole who asked too many questions on Willie’s behalf, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close relation of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle, from That Hideous Strength, all of whom share a taste for sexual pleasure from torture or killing. In addition to not fulfilling conventional ideas of physical beauty, these ugly, lumpish, killer women who work with bad guys all appear to have the ‘wrong’, that is, non-heterosexual proclivities, whereas the other women who are killers in the action thriller genre, Modesty herself, and even Emma Peel, are definitely into men, and thus have the ‘right’ proclivities. I have never been able to work out exactly how Fleming’s Pussy Galore swung, so let’s leave that analogy there, and accept that O’Donnell’s sexualising of his women characters is dated about orientation too. It would have been astonishing if he had written in any other way, so let’s stop forcing anachronisms on the past.
After all this, you may wish to start reading Modesty Blaise for yourself. There are some really excellent websites and blogs out there with all the bibliographical information you need: see below. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books.
The official site for the Modesty Blaise character and Peter O’Donnell’s books.