A COMIC/SERIOUS IMMORALITY TALE FOR OUR TIMES (a fantasy if it’s your sort of scene)
The story starts in London nearly two years ago, beginning in March 2017, when Britain was – albeit unaware of the fact – heading towards a General Election. Miss Lulu is a dominatrix with a sharp mind and sharp heels, full of intellectual curiosity and sexual know-how. She meets Rory Smith, a journalist, in a hotel bar in Soho and their relationship begins over a conversation about politics, morals and the world in general. There’s a bit of bondage and a lot of badinage, some sex-related villainy and a nascent love story. It also reflects contemporary politics – Trump, May, Brexit et al. Put another way, this is the story of a strong woman with a stable of admirers. Among these is a young woman called Summer, a person in whom Lulu can see something of her former self and with whom she strikes up an unusual friendship. Love is a Battlefield is an acerbic take on the cocktail that is modern Britain. It’s zeitgeist on the rocks.
LONDON APRIL 2017
The next day Lulu saw a couple of clients and so she gave herself the luxury of having the following day off, mostly to go shopping on Bond Street before meeting at Hush for lunch with an old friend, Sarah, who like the rest of them had no idea about her life. With no real regret, maybe more like amusement, she sometimes contemplated the fact that the people in her life fell into one of two categories: they either knew her real name or they knew what she did.
Colin fell into the former category. He was the 60-odd-year-old former cop in charge of security for the building. She invited him over for drinks early one evening. (Well, one could never be too careful, could one?) She had a glass of white wine, he had a beer.
“It must be rather quiet here, Colin, taking care of security for some middle-class property owners after all those years with the Met?”
“Indeed, Miss Cathy. Not a lot goes on around here, I have to say.” She grinned at him sweetly. “But then when it was time to retire, I wasn’t looking for a lot going on. It’s the quiet life for me now, I’m happy to say.”
“So we’re not keeping you on your toes with our evil-doings?”
“Not at all. But I tell you, with the police, I personally found that the biggest problems didn’t arise from dealing with people being evil but with them being stupid.”
“Oh yes. I could tell you a tale or two.”
“Well, tell me one anyway.”
Missing her gentle sarcasm, he told his tale. “Well, let me see now. Obviously I need to be careful because of the Official Secrets Act and all that. OK, here’s one to make you wonder. An old Whitehall joke goes that if one government ministry in particular – I won’t tell you which one; I’d have to kill you if I did [he smiled at his own joke] – fielded a cricket team against another Civil Service department, they wouldn’t bother about the toss. This ministry wouldn’t so much lose it as leak it. [The smile again.] I’ll give you an example of that with bells on, one that illustrates their bungling perfectly. There was a junior civil servant there who was not the brightest spark. One Friday, he took home a load of CDs. He wanted to record some rock music over the weekend, and he decided that he may as well nick some of the discs the department had got rather than buy them off Amazon or from the high street. The problem was the CDs weren’t blank, as he thought they were – they contained classified information. All hell broke loose in his department when it was discovered that they were missing and there was massive relief when the culprit owned up to taking them.”
“Gosh, that was a good break for them.”
“Yes it was. But, dumb as usual, the ministry then sought to have him prosecuted under the OSA…sorry, the Official Secrets Act. It was a classic case of shoot first, ask questions later, because it was only later that anyone got around to examining the evidence. It emerged that they didn’t exactly know what was on any of the discs, and they had taken no precautions to protect the contents. The defendant had managed to record his rock music over this supposedly sensitive information; he’d wiped it off completely. So rather than ‘Top Secret’, the CDs should have been relabelled…I don’t know, ‘Rolling Stones’ or something like that. Come to think of it, ‘Simple Minds’ would have been better. [This time he laughed.] In fact, that would have been perfect. The prosecution was dropped and the country was minus something important, although nobody was able to say just how important it was or exactly what it was.”
“That’s absolutely ludicrous.” She sipped her wine. “Were you based in one department for most of your time with the police?”
“No. I was all over the shop. The longest time I was with any section was…well, now I’ve started but I’m not sure I like to say, you being a young lady and all that.”
The sweet grin again. “Oh go on, Colin. It can’t be that bad. And I’m not a child, you know.”
“Well,” he said, very hesitantly, “actually I dealt for four years with obscene publications.”
Her expression brightened. “Pornography, you mean?”
“Er, yes,” before adding hurriedly, “but of course it was nothing then like what you get today.” Short pause. “I mean, nothing like what I understand people get today.”
“How do you mean?” she asked curiously. “Isn’t porn porn whenever it was?”
“Yes, but there wasn’t the internet then, was there? Not in my day. It was mostly magazines and videos. I think there’s a lot more bad stuff out there these days.”
“Obviously I wouldn’t know but I’m sure you’re right. Did you find it disturbing at all?”
“Now and again. Sometimes kiddies were pictured and you can’t tolerate that.”
“You certainly can’t,” she agreed with a look of utter distaste. “That’s truly revolting, depraved.”
Another sip of wine and a longer pause.
“Did you ever find any of it stimulating?”
Colin was mock-outraged. “Miss Cathy! I’m not discussing that sort of thing with a nice young lady like you.”
But after a short pause he couldn’t help himself.
“I tell you, though, we sometimes got a hell of a laugh out of some of the things we saw.”
“Well,” another pause…
“Colin, come on. You can’t suggest to someone that you’re about to tell them something interesting and then just clam up. It’s not fair!”
Now he couldn’t help himself from getting into his stride. “Alright then. You see, in sex cases, the most overused word to describe the material in front of you is probably ‘simulated’. Or at least it was – like I said, I’m not pretending I’m up to date with material these days. We once prosecuted a video that was described as showing ‘simulated stimulation’. [Lulu grinned.] The next week, we had another that was classified as being ‘simulated necrophilia’. One wag added to the file: ‘What’s this? Playing possum?’ [Lulu laughed.] One file mistakenly described the contents of a video [he broke into a grin] as ‘Midget goes into kitchen and starts locking anus of female’. Obviously, it should have read ‘fucking’. Sorry, about that, Miss Cathy, but it goes with the story.”
She grinned again. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve heard worse.”
“Anyhow, that led to a note on the file asking if this were a case of burglary rather than buggery.”
She laughed hugely. “That’s very good.”
Smiling even more broadly, he went on. “On another occasion there was a guy having it off with a pig while a woman encircled them on roller skates, pelting him and the pig with tomatoes. [Lulu looked incredulous.] I know, the things some people will get up to, hey? The file called this one ‘Brave man attempts to have sex with irate pig’. It had been imported from Denmark so, almost needless to say, by the time the file left the department, the question had been posed ‘Is Danish porn rasher than Danish bacon?’ Good, hey?”
She laughed. “Very much so. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything out of Borgen.”
“Out of what?”
“Borgen. It was a Danish drama that used to be on the BBC. You perhaps missed it.”
“Yes, I must have.”
He took a swig of his beer. “I must say, Miss Cathy, I’ve noticed how keen you are on your music.” Porn talk over, then.
She looked a little perplexed. “Well, yes I am, but do you mean I have it on too loud?”
He smiled at her in an avuncular manner. “Well, that’s not for me to say. If you want my opinion – not that it matters to me; I only work here, I’m not a tenant – then maybe sometimes you do, at odd times of day as well. You know, not just early of an evening. But I have received no complaints so I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.”
“I don’t want to cause any upset.”
“And you haven’t. Like I say, you asked me the question and I’ve answered it. Comes from being a cop, I suppose. I like plain-speaking.”
She smiled what she hoped passed for a look of gratitude.
“Also, if you don’t mind me saying, you seem to like a wide range of music. Rock, classical, all sorts.”
“I like to think I’m a girl of catholic tastes, Colin.”
“And of the Catholic Church as well?”
“Actually not, although I sometimes think I quite live the life of a nun.”
“What – too much work and too little play?”
“Something like that,” she said cheerily. “Let me get you another beer.”
She read the papers quite thoroughly over the next few days in between appointments; she’d knew she’d eventually get bored of the election talk well before June 8. Although May was adamant the outcome wasn’t in the bag despite her huge lead in the opinion polls, she was behaving as if it was: refusing to take part in television debates and generally trying to close the election down rather than open it up for debate. But why risk debating when you’re winning? Again, though, that didn’t explain why Corbyn was doing the same thing. One sketch writer had fun with them both, characterising Corbyn’s trenchant unilateralism as being a policy of ‘let he who is without sin cast the first drone’ while the PM had been transmogrified into Kim Jong-May. Well, she certainly didn’t do dissent.
One morning she heard the phone ringing and for a moment was marginally disorientated. What ring tone was that? Then she realised. It was the landline. That could only mean one thing.
“Yes, of course it’s Cathy. You just rang my number. Who else would be picking up the phone in my house?”
“How did I know it was you? Because you’re the only person who rings me on this number.”
“Yes, well, Alice does sometimes, when she has the time. But I’m sure she’s very busy looking after three small kids.”
“Have you heard from her? How is she?”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Yes, gastroenteritis is very messy.”
“People to do with work? They ring me on my mobile.”
She didn’t think it was worth making that a plural.
“Pretty busy. Managing to keep the wolf from the door.”
“I said the wolf from the door. It’s an expression.”
“No, there aren’t any wolves around here. The odd fox, but that’s as close as it gets.”
“I know, I must get down to see you and dad again soon. It’s been a few months.”
“Gosh, a year and a half, is it?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just one thing and another. I’ve just been so tied up here.”
Thinking: ‘well, some people have been’.
“Yes, next month should be fine. A day of sea air would probably do me the world of good.”
“OK, two days if I can find the time.”
“Yes, I’ll do that. I’ll call you next week to fix a date.”
“Sorry, I can’t do that right now. There’s someone at the door.”
“No. I told you, mum. There are no wolves. And they wouldn’t knock on the door if there were. I’m expecting a visitor, that’s all.”
“OK. Love you, too.”
Rory’s new column had a taste of Trump, too.
Howard Jacobson is a past winner of the Man Booker Prize, in 2010 for The Finkler Question. His latest novel is called Pussy, as in Donald Trump’s sexist boast about where you could grab a woman if you were famous, a coarse phrase about which Hillary Clinton is probably still wondering how/why it didn’t cost her opponent the presidential election.
Hillary makes occasional appearances here under the thin disguise of Sojjourner Heminway. Nigel Farage does likewise as Caleb Hopsack, a populist politician. We are in the republic of Urbs-Ludus where the Grand Duke and Duchess have a son, Fracassus (i.e. Trump), who destroys Lego buildings, is adamantly against reading, and is bereft if his television is taken away – all this before he leaves childhood and seeks to make his way in the world of reality TV and Twitter. The conceit and the concept, which came to the author amid his shock at what happened to the American political system last November, are potentially intriguing and tailor-made for satire. But perhaps Jacobson doesn’t totally deliver the goods.
There are, admittedly, some good lines and neat observations. For example, there is a famous weatherman in Urbs-Ludus called Philander. “Everything’s true,” Philander said, “not because it is, but because I say it is.” This theory fascinated his young listener. Jacobson writes: “The zone Fracassus inhabited appeared to be one where neither words nor intentions had traction. You could just say a thing, and then unsay it, with no cost to yourself and no repercussions for others, because there were no others.”
Also, the young Donald – sorry, Fracassus – worshipped the Roman Emperor Nero on account of some bacchanalian behaviour he had seen him indulge in during a dramatised movie about ancient times. This had its hazards, though, as one of the two advisers charged with his tutelage told his father. “He talks a lot about Caffè Nero. I have a suspicion he thinks the Emperor owns the chain and might actually be working in one of them.” I have to say I laughed at that notion; also at the idea of Mantovani being the author of The Prince.
However, the whole doesn’t hang convincingly together. Jacobson has clearly been inspired in part by Gulliver’s Travels, but this book lacks that ambition – or if it didn’t, then he missed his Swiftian target by some margin. But maybe the reality is that Trump is in part beyond parody. At one point in the latter half of the book, exultant crowds repeatedly chant: “Frac-Ass-Us! Frac-Ass-Us!” (It’s not hard to figure why Jacobson decided on that name for him.) The other adviser noted: “He possesses the opposite of charisma to such a degree that people will stand for hours trying to figure out why they’re standing there for hours.” Another excellent line, but when Jacobson says he wrote the novella in just two months, it sometimes shows.
But, like I say, there is some good stuff. In a barb aimed in the direction of Trump’s notorious narcissism, the author says of Fracassus: “He was used to waking with an erection and attributed it to the hours he’d just passed in his own company.” In which instance, I guess, he’d just be grabbing himself…
The traffic was shocking, but then whenever was it otherwise? Budget for an hour to get from Sheldon Square to Canary Wharf and of course it would take you 90 minutes. Charity dinners bored Raul enormously but now and again he felt he couldn’t find reason not to attend when invited by some of his investor friends, who loved to hang out with star names, and tonight was such a night. Of course, Deborah was with him and at least they were being driven and, as a big bonus, this limo had a cocktail cabinet. Things could have been worse.
“Jesus, what’s that twat doing?” Raul exploded as the car jerked to a halt for the nth time, this one to avoid hitting a pedestrian. “Auditioning to be a fucking bollard?”
“Calm down, Raul,” his wife said. “We’ll get there in the end. Your language can be shocking sometimes. I’m glad the chauffeur can’t hear what you’re saying.”
To say they had an unusual relationship would be an understatement. It was essentially a marriage of inconvenience but they each had a somewhat disreputable reason for wanting to keep the show on the road. For Raul, being married gave him, somewhere in his persona, an image of being respectable. (Also, it was handy now and again for thwarting the hints of something more permanent from women who knew him even less well than did his wife – Exhibit A: Vanessa.)
What Deborah got out of it was a sumptuous apartment in a smart development in central London and a lot of spending money. But based on such flimsy foundations, it was inevitable that cracks would regularly occur within the structure. It didn’t help, for starters, that Deborah knew Raul made his money from an involvement in the sex industry. It would have helped very much less if she had even the faintest idea of the extent of it. She thought his money nowadays principally came from a pretty low-rent website called 50 Seconds of Play, the brainchild – if that word could be used in this context – of a former business associate of his who felt it suggested the combined influence of Andy Warhol and E. L. James.
“It’s a website for wankers, Deborah,” he’d explained during one spectacular row. “It’s for sad fucks who aren’t getting any and so have to make do by watching some other guy gamely humping away.” He could hardly comprehend that she would think he made enough from this pathetic venture to finance her lavish lifestyle but then he also had to acknowledge it wasn’t her fault that she had no clue about the business model of his operation. He understood she didn’t like the fact of what he did but as he had once put it: “I don’t notice you complaining when it pays for all those clothes you buy and the God knows how many fucking shoes. Why do you need all those? It could single-handedly be down to you that Jimmy Choo isn’t going broke any time soon.”
They hardly had a sex life themselves, which was mostly fine with him. Bizarrely, the thing that annoyed him most was probably the fact that she couldn’t even be bothered to pretend she was interested. If one evening in bed he even so much contemplated making an overture towards her, she’d complain of a headache. The woman could be a mindreader! He had said several times “sex cures headaches so don’t give me that crap” but for whatever reason that hadn’t worked and now he’d pretty much given up altogether.
All considered then, he was totally taken aback when she said in the car: “Why do men pay women for sex?”
This was way too confusing – not only that his wife was asking the question, and why, but where on earth would anyone begin to start the answer? He poured himself another gin and tonic and opted to keep it simple.
“Why are you asking me that question?”
“Because I read something about it in the Sunday paper at the weekend and it said that even men who were happily married, and getting a lot of sex at home, would visit prostitutes.”
This was unbelievable. The first two points of her sentence certainly didn’t apply to them, as she well knew, so what was the purpose of this?
“Why are you asking me this? Yes, we’re married, but you’d hardly say we had a rampant sex life.”
“I’m asking you because you’re in the business.”
This set off an instant alert. Did she know how he really made his money?
“What do you mean?” he said curiously. “You mean the website?”
“Yes, of course. What else is there?”
Phew! “There is nothing else, but visiting our site isn’t the same as paying for sex.”
Indeed. He didn’t know of any women you could screw for 50 pence. Or in 50 seconds from start to finish of the transaction.
“But surely in the man’s mind it might be?”
“It might. But he isn’t actually having sex with anyone. He’s watching someone else do it.”
“But why would he prefer to do that?”
“It may well be nothing to do with preferring. For starters, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper!”
She thought for a moment.
“OK, but if a man is being satisfied at home, why play away? The thrill of perhaps getting caught?”
“Perhaps, but some men find monogamy to be very difficult; it’s in their make-up to seek out other women. But you have to know all this sort of stuff – all that psychobabble you must read about in those women’s magazines you hoard.”
“And perhaps because the prostitute might let him do things that his wife won’t?”
Given that it had pretty much got to the point where Deborah wouldn’t let Raul touch her naked arm, he really couldn’t see where this was going.
“It could be that, too,” he eventually agreed.
After a short pause, she asked: “Do you visit prostitutes?”
While he was pondering his reply, she added: “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
Classic! Offering an open-goal of a get-out, ready to skewer him with a marriage-shredding riposte once the admission came. But what could that possibly be? And how much would he care anyway?
“All I would say now, Deborah, is that there are occasions when you think how wonderful it would be to have sex with a dead-eager, super-fit 25-year-old, but the fact is that if you’re a guy over, say, 40 then that’s likely only going to happen if you get your wallet out.”
She looked at him, her expression impossible to fathom, and then out of the window.
“I think we’re here,” she said.
THE NEXT UPDATE WILL BE PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 1