Saturday, 29 November 2008

No Sex Please, We’re The Guardian

Liberal political theory in the abstract has a profound concern for personal liberty. All good and right thinking liberals should see individual freedom and human rights as sacrosanct. Many have championed free speech and opposed censorship and they have courageously stood shoulder to shoulder with campaigners for sexual freedom and openness.

Of course liberal theory very rarely relates to practice in the real world and you would have to be very naive indeed to think they have kept to these principles in all circumstances and historical periods. Statist and legislative measures to change peoples ‘bad habits’ are part of the liberal tradition as well as denigration of the struggles of the working class and the oppressed. This is clearly emphasised if you take The Guardian newspaper as a barometer of liberal opinion. The Guardian newspaper considered by many to be the heart and soul of liberality, advertises as the paper giving equal space to differing opinions and takes pride in its opposition to intolerance and bigotry, but when it comes to the difficult issue of commercial sex we get only one side of the story.

The dominant writer in the Guardian on the ‘sex industry’, to the exclusion of all other writers with opposing views, is Julie Bindel. A self-styled radical feminist, militantly puritanical and pro-censorship, Bindel is certainly no liberal. So why is she so prominent in a liberal newspaper? And why are sex workers, proponents of decriminalisation and anti-censorship campaigners excluded from a paper that prides itself of giving equal space to differing opinions? As new legislation is announced by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to criminalise men who pay for sex with women "controlled for another person's gain", as well as other laws concerning lap-dancing and pornography, the nature of contemporary liberalism, its sanctimonious finger-wagging and prudery are glaringly highlighted by the Guardian’s one-sidedness. Many of today’s liberals are pseudo-liberal or pseudo-left; basically individuals who have abandoned the principle of liberty.

Let’s have a look at Ms Bindel’s latest diatribe in the Guardian on the global sex trade as an example of her extreme illiberality. (For those who don’t read The Guardian, it’s important to keep in mind the prominence of Julie Bindel; nearly every article on the ‘sex industry’ is written by her or one of her supporters.) The piece is focused on an Australian ‘radical’ feminist, Sheila Jeffreys book on the sex industry-The Industrial Vagina. In the opening paragraph of Bindel’s article, like any right wing hack writing in The News of the World, we are expected automatically to feel disgust at this degrading business, afterall it’s, shock, horror, SEX! we are dealing with:

In line with the government, many Australian feminists had come to view prostitution simply as a form of work, and Jeffreys found herself appalled by this "neo-liberalism" - the complete lack of moral outrage about the buying and selling of women's bodies.

To Jeffreys (and Bindel) it’s not really an issue of economic exploitation-of workers denied decent salaries, forced to work long hours to feed their families under appalling working conditions-but a revulsion with sex itself. (or heterosexual intercourse at least)

The common theme of her work is her (Jeffreys) firm belief that men maintain power over women by the act of sexual intercourse, and that heterosexuality is therefore bad for women.

If their arguments were not based on visceral disgust with sex then why do these writers obsessively concentrate on the subject. I have never seen an article by Bindel on non-sexual exploitation of women workers in domestic or care work or the general corporate slavery inflicted on mainly young women in the global clothing industry.

The global ‘sex industry’ as understood by Bindel and Jeffreys is not merely prostitution but stripping (lap dancing) and pornography. Here we enter the realm of the monomaniac conspiracy theory; the idea of all men controlling all women through sex . (prostitution, stripping, pornography) Take a complex and multilayered subject (commercial sex), reduce it down to its most simple minded component (men oppressing women), and then sell it as an overarching tyranny at the exclusion of all other tyrannies. Men are to blame! Anti-Semites do the same with their idea of a conspiracy of Jewish bankers, the UN and the Israeli lobby. Jews are to blame! And like all conspiracy theorists if you criticise them it’s because you are part of the conspiracy: You disagree because you’re a man (or a heterosexual woman) or a Jew.

Reading this intolerant and fanatical piece you would think a writer such as Julie Bindel would not have a permanent position on The Guardian. But even worse sex workers and sex positive feminists are denied a voice in this quintessentially liberal newspaper; almost as if to hold the opposing view is now considered illiberal rather then the other way round. These two short articles on prostitution, one by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a researcher into sex work and Laurie Penny, a journalist and blogger, show what has been excluded from its pages-considered, well researched articles, devoid of sensationalist tabloid moralising, treating sex workers as active agents rather then degraded victims.*

So why the bias? Are we facing a growing puritanism (reflected in today’s liberalism and some sections of the Left as well as society at large) hand-in-hand with increasing government control over personal life? Julie Bindel not only writes for the Guardian but works for The Poppy Project, a mainstream charitable organisation that ostensibly helps trafficked women, but also lobbies to criminalize clients of prostitutes-see Laurie Penny’s article for a critique of this group. Or as New Labour are unwilling and unable to address economic exploitation they have turned to the old standby of law and order and censorship, once the prerogative of the Right. Again Julie Bindel has close ties with the Home Office and praised authoritarian Labour ministers.

The Left must take seriously this threat to our basic freedoms, liberties gained by the cultural revolution of the sixties-a freedom to engage in erotic practices between consenting adults (no matter how bizarre they are viewed by conventional society), to enjoy sexual entertainment or to consume pornographic media. All authoritarian creeds from religious fundamentalists to fascists and Stalinists are puritanical, starting out with the aim of suppressing the diffuse desires and the sexual imagination of human beings; do not allow a new form of puritanism, extreme gender politics, to get any more footholds in the movements for social change. Already the main liberal newspaper in the UK is under their control when it comes to the subject of commercial sex and feminism.

* Admittedly the article by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon is from the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, but was never printed in the main paper, where Julie Bindel has full dominance.

Organisations worth supporting:

Sexual Freedom Campaigns and Sex Positive Feminists:

Sexual Freedom Coalition

Consenting Adults Action Network


Feminists Against Censorship

Sex Workers Unions and Organisations

The International Union of Sex Workers

The English Collective of Prostitutes

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Book Review: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has created nightmares for a very long time now; picking up it seems every horror literature award available and exulted by the big guns of the genre-Stephen King, Clive Barker et al. But take a look at any horror section in UK bookshops, pushing aside the proliferation of Shaun Hutson and Dean Koontz, and most likely you will not find any Ramsey Campbell titles. Until recently, although an English writer, his books were published only in America. The Grin of the Dark is his latest novel and his first for Virgin Books. I doubt its sold many copies.

But if tales of terror are graded by there scaryness then The Grin of the Dark is a bona fide masterpiece, a five star marvel. Simon Lester, a writer on cinema, takes up the offer of researching the lost silent comedies of former music hall artiste, Tubby Thackeray. The terrifying presence of Tubby's grinning moon shaped head and his deeply unsettling films, dominate a first person narration of nightmarish anxiety, as Simon descends into madness or alternatively faces a dark force of primeval chaos. Campbell expertly uses his trade mark method of transforming the ordinary world of objects and people into sinister shapes or malevolent shadows, until eventually the truly uncanny slips into full view.

There is something close to the surrealism of David Lynch here, especially this novel, which is like an extended nightmare. The narrator’s everyday anxieties and his feelings of failure, anger and frustration, mix with the intrusion of the disturbingly strange as in Lynch’s Eraserhead. The sinister clown in horror fiction is a clichĂ© but here the figure of Tubby Thackeray is used to delve into the gleefully insane nature of slapstick comedy. Madness and alienation are major themes and by the end of the novel you are unsure of what you have been reading; a Lovecraftian tale of cosmic terror or an unreliable narrator, confined to a hospital ward for the mentally ill, describing the unravelling of his mind. The writing style is deliberately dislocated at times, adding to the atmosphere of displacement and paranoia. Another cinematic influence adding to the novel’s many layers are Japanese and Korean horror, with its apparitions haunting and infecting modern technology; in this instance the internet.

Ramsey Campbell has excelled himself with The Grin of the Dark. His uniquely disorientating prose is employed to the utmost but the novel is not merely a vehicle for frights. Different themes (madness, alienation, the essence of comedy and the dark side of entertainment) are interwoven subtle into the story. This is a very rare beast indeed; horror that not only scares but makes you think.

Postscript: A major set piece at the beginning of the novel is situated in Virginia Water, part of Windsor Great Park, Surrey, although not named by Ramsey Campbell. As a child I went on walks with my family here and was fascinated by the huge Native American totem pole with its carved faces (mentioned in the novel) and the fake Greek ruins. More pertinent to The Grin of the Dark is the fact that adjacent to Virginia Water is Holloway Sanatorium (not in the novel) a gothic Victorian insane asylum now renovated as a gated housing estate. Simon Lester, the narrator of The Grin of the Dark, was a student at the nearby Royal Holloway College.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

A Short Story for Halloween: The Looking Glass House (Continued)

Awaking after a night of heat and restive dreams I washed in the basin, dressed and attempted to search for Alfred and Emily, but met the taciturn housekeeper instead. Mrs Johnston led me to the small kitchen where silently I sat at the stained wooden table and eat the meagre breakfast she grudgingly prepared.

I sat slumped over my plate of porridge unable to eat anymore, thinking despondent thoughts. If only I had not stayed away from Arnhiem Manor for so long or at least written more regularly. If only Alfred had informed me of Emily’s condition. So many ifs, all of them useless now; there only point being to inflame my mind with regrets. I jumped slightly when Alfred entered and in the stark light of morning his state was even more shockingly degraded. His hair was greasier, long and uncut, his beard like a bird’s nest; the eyes swallowed by nightmares of insomnia, red as blood. He was stooped like an old man, his breath stank of whiskey and as he sat across from me I noticed the unpleasant smell of rancid sweat.

“Dear God, Alfred, what the hell is going on,” I said, unable to contain myself. “You have to tell me everything. Everything for Christ’s sake!”
“Edwin, I want you out of my house by the end of the week.” His voice was surprisingly strong, belying his outward appearance.
Again I was speechless. By this one spoken sentence, Alfred was rejecting our close friendship, slamming a door on my love for Emily.
“But…” I gathered myself mentally, the dormant anger rising like an unleashed dragon. I was aware of this from the past, an unrestrained, irrational rage that occasionally burst forth. I was ashamed and had made the greatest efforts to control it. Now I almost lost control but although the provocation was immense I temporally smothered it.

I got up and said firmly without a stutter or tremble in my words, “I am not leaving Arnhiem Manor, Alfred. I love your daughter and I have proposed marriage. She has accepted my offer. Furthermore I demand to see Emily and wish to speak to her.”
Alfred’s shoulders shook, a stifled laugh was seemingly contorting his body but was he sobbing instead? I never had time to find out; with a rapid movement he fled from the kitchen. I tried to follow him but he ran outside into the bright gardens. Although my temper was urging me to hunt him down, another idea suddenly crossed my mind. I was loath to do so but realising Emily was still in her room I would knock and hopefully she would allow me egress to her sick bed. I was desperate to talk to her.

Tapping gently I spoke her name but no reply was forthcoming. Raising my voice slightly I knocked harder on her door and I thought I detected a sound, almost imperceptible, of a muffled moan, but I was not sure. Before I could commence with my attempts to raise Emily I heard footsteps on the stairs. Quickly I retreated to my room and withdrawing the key in the lock stared through the hole. It was Alfred and he was unlocking Emily’s chamber. I realised, my mind too confused to react with speed, he was keeping his daughter under lock and key. By the time this shocking realisation hit me, Alfred had shut the door. Again I hesitated. With an extreme effort I calmed myself and nonchalantly approached the shut door. Lowering my head I listened intently; I heard Alfred whispering words of comfort and disturbingly muffled, incoherent cries arose from Emily. Dejection claimed me then, forcing me to retreat. What else could I do in the circumstances; I was excluded, expelled from this intimate family group. Alfred in his despair saw me only as an unwelcome intrusion; his grief sending him almost insane, locking away his own daughter. Short of committing an act of unseemly violence I was helpless.

I sat on my bed, putting my head in my hands and gave vent to unmanly tears.

The day was spent roaming the grounds of Arnhiem Manor and walking the river path towards Hampton Court, in a daze of introspection. My mind did not take in the tranquil swaying of the willows in the breeze, the graceful swans gliding across the water or any details of this clear, fresh day, but the peacefulness of the countryside, after a few hours, relaxed my mental turmoil slightly. Around late afternoon I retreated to the near deserted Old Manor Inn and sat nursing a pint of strong beer. I had decided all was hopeless. Emily was fading away fast and it would not be long before she died. Alfred would no doubt eventually recover from his terrible loss so soon after the death of his own wife, three years before and once the crippling pangs of grief had passed he would apologize for his behaviour. Tomorrow I would return to Oxford; there was no other course of action.

It was almost dark when I returned to the dismal hulk of the Manor. I let myself in with the key the housekeeper had given me and was immediately struck by the high temperature. By some unknown agency, the heat, maybe created by the modern laboratory, was trapped. But it was a process I could not understand. The sweat immediately beaded on my forehead as I lit a candle, left thoughtfully by Mrs Johnston and I decided there and then to visit the library. Sleep tonight would be impossible. Lengthened and deformed shadows clustered around me as I moved and the pitch black corridors, the impenetrable darkness, appeared to be holes into endless space, extinguishing light without mercy. All around me the house seemed to elongate and expand into dark emptiness, as if the manor was reaching its true shape, lying outside the confines of its walls; a shape beyond comprehension.

Entering the library was like stepping into an immense cavern, but I soon found the gaslight over the reading desk and lit it with a match from my pocket. The faint glow released by the light only accentuated the deep wells of non-illumination encompassing the rest of the library. On the desk was the same ancient volume Alfred was reading yesterday and my eyes were drawn involuntarily to the illustration on the opened page.

Depicted in primitive style without perspective a dreadful human sacrifice was taking place. A bearded man in occultist robes, covered in obscure magical symbols, cut with a monstrous blade a foetus from the womb of a naked woman, tied on an x shaped cross. Crudely inked on both sides of this picture were the same type of mirrors in the alcoves, and making an apex of a triangle, with the bloody sacrifice in the centre, was a portrayal of a larger looking glass. The illustrated frame was seemingly crafted on one side into entwined foliage, on the other with human bodies of both sexes. A staring eye of hatred was at the top of the frame but beneath was another eye, this one filled with fear. This must be the artist’s impression of the missing mirror.

I sat on the chair beside the table and turned the pages carefully, surveying the Latin text and the frontispiece. The book was an account of a heretical 16th Century sect and their doctrines by one of their acolytes. Of course I knew of their leader Charles Marlowe, architect and occultist. It was he who built Arnhiem Manor, designing the house to specific dimensions, corresponding to his peculiar beliefs. What these beliefs were I did not know in any detail; I suppose you could describe them as a satanic form of Gnosis. Alfred had explained Marlowe’s irrational ideas but like all supernatural or religious dogma it was of no interest to me. The demise of Charles Marlowe and his followers did have an affect on my mind though because of its gruesome nature. A rabble of ignorant peasants led by a bigoted priest massacred the entire sect, the women and children included, blaming them for the disappearance of infants in the vicinity and the failure of their crops; the usual story of religious intolerance towards unorthodoxy played out monotonously throughout history.

But on closer study of this old tome I began to understand the antipathy held by the Elizabethan priest and his flock. Charles Marlowe’s cosmological theories were certainly unconventional. He believed the universe was created not by God but by the Devil. God did not even exist and was a mere fiction invented, alongside the concept of guilt, by the weak and powerless, to strangle the natural lusts and cruelties of the aristocracy. Arnhiem Manor’s architectural structure was specifically designed by Marlowe as a symbolic reconstruction of the ten Satanic Universes and as a means of entry to these diabolic realms. Here the three mirrors came into their own, acting as gateways or portals but only when an act of sacrilege like blood sacrifice was performed.

I smiled. To what ludicrous and irrational formulas did some people have to stoop to justify their acts of debauchery. But the depictions of horror and sadism this cult engaged in, specifically towards children and pregnant woman, was enough to wipe the smile off my face.

Distracted by the sound of distant footsteps echoing through the house, getting louder as they approached the library, I swiftly extinguished the light and hid in the dimness of the towering book cases. Alfred entered carrying an oil lamp and I retreated further into the musty shadows to escape its beam. Walking stiffly like he was suffering from cramp, he went to the vacant space between the two mirrors in the alcoves. Resting the lamp on the wooden boards of the floor, he stared as if transfixed into the mirrors; first one for about a minute and then the other. These manoeuvres became repetitive like a ritual; he swivelled, stared as if in a trance, than turned, staring fixedly into the opposite mirror and so on.

This display of obsessive behaviour frightened me at first but eventually fear gave way to irritation, then outright anger. I should have pitied him, obviously his mind had snapped under the terrible weight of his grief, but instead I felt exasperation at his ridiculous movements, while his daughter suffered upstairs, locked in her room. Without thinking I strode forward and seized Alfred by his shoulders and spun him around to face me.

I was almost on the point of raising my fist when I caught sight of the mirror on my left, nailed to the wall of bare brick in its alcove. Its absolute hideousness stilled my hand as the eye carved on the top half of the frame seemed to stare back. While the rest of the round frame was undecorated wood, the eye had been formed by an expert craftsman; it oozed hatred and seemed to quiver with its force. Reflected in the stained surface of the looking glass was its opposite on the other side of the library. It too had an artfully sculpted eye but this one was fearful as if terrified by the other. I looked at our reflections retreating to infinity and vertigo engulfed me briefly, as if I was falling down a well that had no end.

Alfred had fallen to his knees and tightly grasped my trouser leg. Tears were streaming down his sunken cheeks. He gurgled something incomprehensible but then visibly took himself under control. Taking his hands away he stood up and backed away.

“I’ve…I’ve a confession to make…Edwin,” he stuttered. His eyes darted urgently but refused to settle on my own. “I’ve…it is too terrible, just terrible what I have done. Edwin, end my pitiful, repulsive life, snuff me out like a flame but listen first to what I have to say.” As he continued his monologue his voice grow in confidence but he still refused to look me in the eye. “Something has happened, something awful. Emily is with child and…” Here he stopped and gulped back a sob.

I was speechless but what came next was beyond belief.

“Edwin, please Edwin, forgive me. It’s the house, the mirrors, maybe my drinking, I don’t know, but I was not in my right mind. I am the father of the child!”

This blunt confession took a few seconds to sink in but when it did I lost control. My fist, hard and fast, made contact with his face, knocking him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, spitting teeth on the floor, dripping blood. My large hand held his collar and hauled him towards the door. What I was doing at that moment was a mystery even to me but unconsciously I was making my way to Emily’s bedroom. I suppose I wanted her to witness my fury towards her father, to see him beaten to a pulp for his crime. Alfred did not struggle but allowed himself to be dragged through the dark house, even though on the stairs I kicked him viscously below the knees when he held back slightly.

We reached our destination and I shouted “Give me the key.” Weakly, still spitting blood he did so, his hand trembling. I put the key in the lock and pushed open the door, my mind in so much turmoil, bubbling with rage, I did not bother to knock.

Now it was my turn to fall to my knees. Before me was a sight of the utmost horror which would imprint itself so forcefully on my brain it would haunt me until my death. I knew instinctively I would from now on awake on most nights screaming, my head incurably impregnated with nightmares. Red gore like thrown paint defiled the pale cream bedspread and the curtains of the four-poster. Leaning against the foot of the bed, her head thrown back, eyes’ staring in front of her, was my beloved, her body still alive, still twitching with residual life. Firmly held in her hand was a bloodied carving knife taken from the kitchens; with this she had torn open her own belly, exposing her innards. A whipping motion so quick I could not really comprehend it, maybe a piece of rope or a vine from a tropical plant, shot back to its source; a mirror attached to the wall. In these few seconds of movement I thought I saw coiled in its grip, a tiny malformed blob of once living flesh, roughly in the shape of a human baby. It vanished into the reflecting surface of the looking glass, directly in front of the four-poster and the vacant line of sight of Emily.

So this was where the missing third mirror was situated. It was as evil looking as the picture in the Elizabethan book, far more evil in fact, because this was the real item. The two eyes on the frame were crafted with phenomenal skill, staring with insane hatred and fear and the entwined tendrils of jungle foliage on the one side and the obscene naked bodies writhing on the other added to its primeval malevolence. The glass itself, I was sure of this although it was beyond scientific explanation, was void for a few minutes; I mean really black like a puncture in illumination, a fissure in reality. As the heat like the steamy tropics shimmered dizzily around me I felt pulled to this black chasm, this eternity of nothingness. Terror overwhelmed me beyond the mere fear of death as if I was on the point of being entombed forever. Alfred was now crouching in a corner, his arms wrapped around himself, rocking too and fro, muttering like a madman. I vomited profusely and mercifully blanked out.

The insane behind the iron doors moaned or chattered aimlessly, as Dr Redgrave with a burly uniformed guard, rattling with keys, led me to Alfred’s cell. The asylum out beyond Guildford was a bleak but secure place, surrounded by pinewoods and protected by a forbidding wall. I questioned my own sanity by going through with this visit. If I disproved my theory I was facing my own slow decline into madness. If the theory was correct I was facing something far worse.

Although a sensation in the more disreputable news sheets the trial did not last long. I was chief witness for the prosecution: in my anger and despair I condemned Alfred, backed up by the statement of the housekeeper concerning his irrational behaviour. I knew he was innocent of murder but this was beyond belief. He was guilty anyway of a heinous crime and deserved to suffer the full consequences of the law. My friend sat passively in the dock and refused to answer any questions, just nodding and shaking his head. In the end the defence’s plea of insanity was accepted and he was sent to the newly opened Millbank Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he would undergo experimental brain surgery to calm his fevers; the only humane option.

After this I tried to forget. I returned to Oxford deciding I would write scientific treatises and teach at the University. When my mother died I received a large inheritance giving me an independent income and I gave up teaching and eventually my writing. I became a recluse, refusing all contact with friends and relatives. From the beginning I found it difficult to sleep; I was plagued by nightmares. Then the waking dreams began. Each time I glanced into a mirror I saw things, indistinct at first, wriggling beneath furniture or a rushing blur across the carpet. Then months later the source of these movements became more focused. Tiny creatures with many legs like centipedes, myriads of them scuttling and squirming, covering the walls and floors, the chairs, the tables, everywhere. But only behind the reflected surface of a looking glass; there was no trace of these things when I turned away and stared at the room I was standing in. This gave me hope; I throw out every mirror in the house. But after a calm couple of weeks when I began to believe I was free of these frightful visions, I begun to see in any reflective surface the same seething mass of insectiod forms. One night I awoke the servants with my screams when I caught a reflection of my head, devoured by these awful life forms, in a glass decanter.

There was evidence these ghastly apparitions were not confined to my unravelling mind. The temperature in my house began increasing to levels that would be unbearable in India although the few servants I had never complained. I became terrified of stepping out in my garden with its abundant vegetation, home to all kinds of crawling things. My skin began to itch and once when I lay awake in the sweating endless darkness I heard the distant susurration of minute creatures and horror of horrors, the feel of microscopic feet across my scalp and cheeks. At last what I feared the most happened and one day I found beneath the dinning table, a small insect entity no bigger then a fly; its mandibles drawing blood as I tried to pick it up.

I decided then that there could be only one solution to my appalling situation. But first I had to visit Alfred for a test, a test that would prove nothing nor save my life.

The thick iron door of Alfred’s cell was opened by the guard and I followed him in. The bare walls closed in with one barred window letting in only a minimum of light. Sitting on the pallet, dressed in the grey serge garment of the inmate, his protruding eyes staring into space and his head shaved with huge stitches on the top of the skull, was my former friend. I felt no pity for this wretched creature, the animal that had defiled my beloved Emily, only disgust. Dr Redgrave told me the lobotomy had completely pacified him, so I went over and took out the shaving mirror from my pocket and placed it in front of his face. Nothing happened, but then a twitch crossed his slack, drooling mouth and after a while he violently scratched and pummelled at his body, letting out a blood curdling howl of extreme terror and revulsion. The guard blew his whistle for assistance and Dr Redgrave pulled me away. The last sight of Alfred Boswell, once my mentor and closest friend, was a thrashing madmen held down on his hard bed by the orderlies as they restrained him with leather straps.

I sit now at my desk finishing the last paragraph of my account. I still do not understand what is happening to me; is madness like a disease that can spread from one person to another or has the gruesome suicide of my fiancé, unleashed a contagion from beyond space and time or from the depths of the remote past or the far future? I will never know. The solid reality of the revolver lies on the blotting paper of my desk as if willing me to pick it up, put the barrel to my head and pull the trigger.