I had a pleasant day after the Christmas festivities reading Brian Sewell’s new book, Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite. It’s the second volume of his autobiography and I can’t recommend this book enough.
Sewell is the notoriously bitchy art critic for the London Evening Standard newspaper. He’s now in his eighties and has settled into being a rather lovably old queen with an acid tongue and an inclination towards painful honesty. I never disliked him before I read this book, but I am now positively adore the delightful old queen.
His sexual escapades told with lubricating relish are a delight to read. Early on in the book (pp 7-8) he talks of cruising, providing an important historical account for the activity in a 60s landscape (and just after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of that year):
‘…I lapsed into the opportunities for promiscuity so abundant on the towpath by the Thames between Hammersmith Bridge and the boat sheds of Putney. There the thrill lay not only in the hunt but in the menace of darkness, for it was lit only by the moon and, until one’s night vision kicked in, one could see nothing and perception was left to other senses – it is odd how much hearing is heightened in such circumstances; there was also the danger of the sudden presence of the river police patrolling in a boat with the engine shut down and all lights off, the fierce beam of its searchlight suddenly cutting through the night. Far from running, the safest thing to do then was to lie flat and still in what small cover there might be, with one’s face turned away from the beam. Often there was no time to disengage and we lay like a brace of spoons waiting for boredom to move the boat on. There was never much conversation, but occasionally my trophy was an oarsman who preferred to be taken home; to my amusement, these were always sheepishly passsive, uncooperative in any foreplay, just wanting to be fucked – something to do with the repetitive action of rowing, I suppose.’
Quite apart from the amusing aspect to this recollection, the story also beautifully conveys the environment and sensory experience of cruising which is sadly missing in many of the recollections which academic sources often turn to.
Sewell also takes us on an adventure through the Bathhouses of New York – including the arbitrary reference to Bette Midler (often a bewildering detail for my students when I recount historical tales of public sex to them in a workshop on the subject) and his stories of masturbating for Salvador Dali really do need to be read to be believed.
Another public sex story which caught my attention comes later in the book (page 150) as the interests of MI6 put pay to some of Sewell’s exploits. He recalls:
‘Indeed, Harrods had to stop being a haunt for casual sodomy in the third floor lavatories, where is was from a Harrods boy in the men’s department that I learned the trick of camouflaging the feet of the recipient in carrier bags so that any suspicious guardian of morals glancing under the door would see only the feet of a heavily-laden customer.’
And you wondered how Harrods built its reputation for excellence in customer care.
One of the more moving examinations of sexuality comes later still. After Sewell has had a heart attack, and his health begins to decline; Sewell returns home from his hospitalisation and masturbates. This followed rather unhelpful advice from a nurse at the point of his discharge from hospital. Sewell writes (page 233-234):
‘A nurse I had not seen before came with instructions not to eat red meat, chocolate or oysters, not to drink coffee, not to have sex. ‘What precisely do you mean with not to have sex?’ ‘Well, you know…’ she replied. ‘No I don’t – sex comes in many guises. Am I allowed to masturbate?’ To this she made the sort of whimper-cum-splutter that a maiden aunt might make and scuttled off puffing with affront’.
So it was that Sewell returned home and cautiously masturbated. An activity which seems to have brought not merely sexual relief, but a rather wonderful sexual insight:
‘I went to bed and very warily, almost enquiringly, I masturbated. Why should this purile and much mocked activity seem so important to a man in his sixties? I do not know: I know only that it was an indication that, in spite of the heart attack, my body was not in other aspects malfunctioning, that I was still a man and had not come a vegetable. Why is it not to be mentioned in polite society, unless by a stand-up comic whose audience will, at the mere mention of it, fall about with laughter? As a subject of serious discussion it is taboo; is this because it is far more common among adult men that we admit or suppose? As all my married friends confess to it but keep it from their supposedly disapproving wives, is it still a secret pleasure in which they must not be too absorbed for fear of the wife at the bathroom foot with her, ‘Darling, what are you doing in there?’ Wives can demand privacy without rousing suspicion but men cannot. Is masturbation the real reason for the garden shed?’
Sewell also goes on to examine the importance of age for the homosexual (heterosexual too?) male, how desire specifically for youthful skin and buttocks can also result in mockery, the risk of one making a fool of oneself and the role of the rentboy. It’s all wonderful stuff, and will particularly resonate with fellow gay men. For those in London; why not support an independent book store such as Gay’s the Word?