Sex and books: London's most erotic writers

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    20

    Geoff Nicholson

    Nicholson was born in Sheffield in 1953 and currently spends much of his time in the US, but he qualifies for this list on the strength of his best-known novel ‘Bleeding London’, shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 1997. He is fiction editor of Ambit magazine. In his own words‘When sex is good, I feel as though I’m disappearing, being pulverised… so that I’m nothing, just particles of air pollution, debris, particles of soot and skin floating through the air and settling on the city.’ (‘Bleeding London’)
    Deborah Moggach, author ‘Tulip Fever’, ‘These Foolish Things’) ‘Geoff Nicholson was last heard of living with a pornographer in Brooklyn. London, however, has been the setting for many of his novels. One of my favourites is “Bleeding London”. What most impressed me was one of the characters, Judy, whose aim was to have sex in every postcode in the city. This is quite a feat (try to apply it to yourself – in my case it’s humiliatingly confined to the NWs).’
    Deborah Moggach’s latest novel, ‘In the Dark’, is out now in paperback.

    19

    John Keats

    Keats was born at 85 Moorgate in 1795. He wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in Winchester in 1819. He lived in Hampstead until 1820 when he moved to Rome on the recommendation of his doctors, dying there of tuberculosis in 1821 aged just 25. In his own words‘Anon his heart revives: her vespers done, Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees; Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one; Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degreesHer rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.’ (‘The Eve of St Agnes’)

    18

    Mark Ravenhill

    Playwright Ravenhill was born in West Sussex in 1966. His plays include ‘Shopping and Fucking’ and ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’. A lover of pantomime, in 2006 he wrote a version of ‘Dick Whittington’ for the Barbican Theatre. In his own wordsVictor ‘[Masturbating the corpse of his dead partner, Tim, in the morgue] This is so shit. I hate this. Is this all there is? There’s got to be more than this.’ (‘Some Explicit Polaroids’)
    Max Stafford-Clark (artistic director, Out of Joint) ‘The extraordinary success of Mark Ravenhill’s “Shopping and Fucking” was due in no small measure to the sexual promise contained in the title. There were a few people who resisted it. Neil Kinnock said he wasn’t drawn to a play about shopping – “and Glenys didn’t fancy the other”. In a candid moment, Mark, who still giggles helplessly at the prospect of ‘Pacific Rim cuisine’, confessed that he was both intrigued and appalled at the prospect of what men got up to with each other. The scene in “Some Explicit Polaroids” where Victor is masturbating the corpse of his dead partner catches Mark’s own glee and ambivalence. But we must value and cherish writers like Mark and Andrea Dunbar, who have dragged sex from the wings and restored it to its rightful place, centre stage.’

    17

    Daniel Defoe

    Novelist, journalist and spy Defoe was born in 1660 in the London parish of St Giles Cripplegate, the son of a tallow chandler. He was imprisoned in Newgate in 1703 for writing a pamphlet satirising High Church extremism. His first novel, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, was followed by ‘Moll Flanders’ in 1722. In his own words‘Some of the servants likewise used me saucily, and had much ado to keep their hands off me.’ (Moll Flanders)
    Justin Cartwright (author ‘The Promise of Happiness’, ‘Look At It This Way’)
    ‘In Defoe’s day there were 50,000 prostitutes in London, one tenth of the female population. “Moll Flanders” is written as the autobiography of a woman with no money and fewer scruples. She moves to London when she falls on hard times and is obliged to take up prostitution. Defoe applied not only wit to the subject, but also sympathy for his heroine. She may be a slapper, and she may deceive herself in her account of her life, but she is always acute in her observations, which is why it is such a terrific book. The book is littered with faux-naïf sentences like this one: “It is true that from the first hour I began to converse with him, I resolv’d to let him lye with me if he offer’d it: but it was because I wanted his help and assistance and I knew no other way of securing him than that.” That was the plight of penniless women in the eighteenth century.’ Justin Cartwright’s latest novel, ‘The Song Before it is Sung’, is out now in paperback.

    16

    William Wycherley

    One of Charles II’s favourite courtiers, playwright Wycherley took advantage of the Restoration relaxation of the laws preventing women from appearing on stage. ‘The Country Wife’ (1675) is famous for its double entendres, especially the so-called ‘china scene’ (see below). In his own wordsMrs Squeamish ‘Oh, lord, I’ll have some china too. Good Mr Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none; come in with me too.’ (‘The Country Wife’)
    Jonathan Kent (directed ‘The Country Wife’ at Haymarket Theatre Royal)
    ‘Wycherley had an admirably clear-eyed view of sex – its irresistibility, its absurdity and the convolutions we all put ourselves through in its pursuit. [Theatre critic] Kenneth Tynan said of “The Country Wife” that it was the only play in the language that was entirely about sex. And so it is. A celebratory release, in the first flush of the Restoration. There was a fashion in the 1970s to emphasise the perceived “darker” side of his plays. I’m sure he would have found this bewildering – his criticisms of society are implicit, not explicit. And, above all, his plays are a celebration of the itch that drives us all. They’re not for the pallid.’

    15

    James Boswell

    Boswell is best known as the companion and biographer of Dr Johnson. His ‘London Journal’ dates from 1762 and chronicles his sexual rapacity, which manifested itself in a fondness for outdoor sex with prostitutes. In his own words‘A more voluptuous night I never enjoyed. Five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy, and asked if this was not extraordinary for human nature. I said twice as much might be, but this was not, although in my own mind I was somewhat proud of my performance.’ (‘Boswell’s London Journal: 1762-1763’) Lynne Truss (author ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’) ‘James Boswell has never had the literary reputation he deserves. Dismissed in the nineteenth century as a Scottish fool who had written a masterpiece by accident, in the twentieth he became known principally for the sexual frankness of his London Journal (first published in 1950). “I picked up a girl in the Strand,” records the 22-year-old. “She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” There are other mentions of his size, incidentally. One of his glories as a diarist is that he never starts a sentence with the words “Modesty forbids”.’

    14

    Henry Fielding

    Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was a magistrate who founded the proto-police force the Bow Street Runners. His satirical novels, celebrated for the modern way that they foreground their own artifice, include ‘Joseph Andrews’, ‘Shamela’ (a parody of Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’, which Fielding loathed) and, of course, the bawdy picaresque ‘Tom Jones’, the tale of a fortunate and notably lusty foundling. In his own words‘ “Why, ma’am,” answered Mrs Honour, “he came into the room one day last week when I was at work, and there lay your ladyship’s muff on a chair, and to be sure he put his hands into it; that very muff your ladyship gave me but yesterday.” ’ (‘Tom Jones’)
    Martin Amis (author ‘Money’, ‘London Fields’) ‘Fielding’s great influence on the English comic novel was the mock epic. So you describe a pub brawl as if it were a Homeric battle. That’s something he does a lot – the dignifying of atrocious behaviour with high language.’Jonathan Coe (author ‘What a Carve Up!’, ‘The Rain Before it Falls’) ‘ “Tom Jones” is now seen as a bit blokey, but for me it was the book that threw the door wide open on the novel’s infinite possibilities. It’s formally radical – throughout the novel, Fielding keeps up a running commentary on his own procedures as a writer. At the same time, it excels at all the thrillingly vulgar devices without which a novel is dead on its feet: it’s full of jokes, suspense, cliffhangers, narrative reversals and pathos.’

    13

    Sigmund Freud

    Sigmund Freud and family moved to London from Vienna in 1938, just over a year before his death. Freud believed that all neuroses have their roots in sexual repression. His pioneering ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ (1899) suggests that our repressed fantasies of, for example, committing incest with our parents are banished to the depths of our unconscious. In his own words‘We must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction.’ (‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’)Will Self (author ‘The Book of Dave’) ‘ “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” is a thriller: you are the detective and your own psyche is a mean streets of irrational impulses and dark desires. The famous case histories – “The Wolf Man”, “Anna O”, etc – are just that: examinations of crimes already committed in the subconscious of the neurotic victims. Pseudo-scientist, shouter-down of the shibboleths, a fabulist who contributed to the radical restructuring of the depth psychology of twentieth-century fiction – what could be more subversive than that? And all of it in Hampstead.’Will Self’s new novel, ‘The Butt’, will be published by Bloomsbury on April 7.

    12

    Hanif Kureishi

    Hanif Kureishi became famous writing about the sociosexual quandaries of British Asian men and, despite the myriad distractions of Shepherd’s Bush market, he’s still at it. He lets John O’Connell in on how sex scenes cheer his books up, why therapy’s ‘like a haircut’ and whether Martin Amis has ever met a Muslim. Read interview with Hanif Kureishi.

    11

    Havelock Ellis

    Croydon-born sexual psychologist Ellis (1859-1939) was especially interested in modesty and narcissism. He was still a virgin at 32 when he married the feminist writer Edith Lees. She was a lesbian; they lived in separate houses. For years he thought he was impotent. Then, aged 60, he discovered that he was able to become aroused by watching women urinate. In his own words‘The relief of detumescence is not merely the relief of an evacuation; it is the discharge, by the most powerful apparatus for nervous explosion in the body, of the energy accumulated and stored up in the slow process of tumescence, and that discharge reverberates through all the nervous centres in the organism.’ (‘Studies in the Psychology of Sex’)30-21 | 20-11 | 10-1

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‘Anon his heart revives: her vespers done, Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees; Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one; Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degreesHer rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.’ (‘The Eve of St Agnes’) ‘[Masturbating the corpse of his dead partner, Tim, in the morgue] This is so shit. I hate this. Is this all there is? There’s got to be more than this.’ (‘Some Explicit Polaroids’) ‘The extraordinary success of Mark Ravenhill’s “Shopping and Fucking” was due in no small measure to the sexual promise contained in the title. There were a few people who resisted it. Neil Kinnock said he wasn’t drawn to a play about shopping – “and Glenys didn’t fancy the other”. In a candid moment, Mark, who still giggles helplessly at the prospect of ‘Pacific Rim cuisine’, confessed that he was both intrigued and appalled at the prospect of what men got up to with each other. The scene in “Some Explicit Polaroids” where Victor is masturbating the corpse of his dead partner catches Mark’s own glee and ambivalence. But we must value and cherish writers like Mark and Andrea Dunbar, who have dragged sex from the wings and restored it to its rightful place, centre stage.’‘Some of the servants likewise used me saucily, and had much ado to keep their hands off me.’ (Moll Flanders)‘In Defoe’s day there were 50,000 prostitutes in London, one tenth of the female population. “Moll Flanders” is written as the autobiography of a woman with no money and fewer scruples. She moves to London when she falls on hard times and is obliged to take up prostitution. Defoe applied not only wit to the subject, but also sympathy for his heroine. She may be a slapper, and she may deceive herself in her account of her life, but she is always acute in her observations, which is why it is such a terrific book. The book is littered with faux-naïf sentences like this one: “It is true that from the first hour I began to converse with him, I resolv’d to let him lye with me if he offer’d it: but it was because I wanted his help and assistance and I knew no other way of securing him than that.” That was the plight of penniless women in the eighteenth century.’ Mrs Squeamish ‘Oh, lord, I’ll have some china too. Good Mr Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none; come in with me too.’ (‘The Country Wife’) ‘Wycherley had an admirably clear-eyed view of sex – its irresistibility, its absurdity and the convolutions we all put ourselves through in its pursuit. [Theatre critic] Kenneth Tynan said of “The Country Wife” that it was the only play in the language that was entirely about sex. And so it is. A celebratory release, in the first flush of the Restoration. There was a fashion in the 1970s to emphasise the perceived “darker” side of his plays. I’m sure he would have found this bewildering – his criticisms of society are implicit, not explicit. And, above all, his plays are a celebration of the itch that drives us all. They’re not for the pallid.’‘A more voluptuous night I never enjoyed. Five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy, and asked if this was not extraordinary for human nature. I said twice as much might be, but this was not, although in my own mind I was somewhat proud of my performance.’ (‘Boswell’s London Journal: 1762-1763’) ‘James Boswell has never had the literary reputation he deserves. Dismissed in the nineteenth century as a Scottish fool who had written a masterpiece by accident, in the twentieth he became known principally for the sexual frankness of his London Journal (first published in 1950). “I picked up a girl in the Strand,” records the 22-year-old. “She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” There are other mentions of his size, incidentally. One of his glories as a diarist is that he never starts a sentence with the words “Modesty forbids”.’ ‘ “Why, ma’am,” answered Mrs Honour, “he came into the room one day last week when I was at work, and there lay your ladyship’s muff on a chair, and to be sure he put his hands into it; that very muff your ladyship gave me but yesterday.” ’ (‘Tom Jones’) ‘Fielding’s great influence on the English comic novel was the mock epic. So you describe a pub brawl as if it were a Homeric battle. That’s something he does a lot – the dignifying of atrocious behaviour with high language.’‘ “Tom Jones” is now seen as a bit blokey, but for me it was the book that threw the door wide open on the novel’s infinite possibilities. It’s formally radical – throughout the novel, Fielding keeps up a running commentary on his own procedures as a writer. At the same time, it excels at all the thrillingly vulgar devices without which a novel is dead on its feet: it’s full of jokes, suspense, cliffhangers, narrative reversals and pathos.’‘We must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction.’ (‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’)‘ “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” is a thriller: you are the detective and your own psyche is a mean streets of irrational impulses and dark desires. The famous case histories – “The Wolf Man”, “Anna O”, etc – are just that: examinations of crimes already committed in the subconscious of the neurotic victims. Pseudo-scientist, shouter-down of the shibboleths, a fabulist who contributed to the radical restructuring of the depth psychology of twentieth-century fiction – what could be more subversive than that? And all of it in Hampstead.’Will Self’s new novel, ‘The Butt’, will be published by Bloomsbury on April 7. Read interview with Hanif Kureishi. ‘The relief of detumescence is not merely the relief of an evacuation; it is the discharge, by the most powerful apparatus for nervous explosion in the body, of the energy accumulated and stored up in the slow process of tumescence, and that discharge reverberates through all the nervous centres in the organism.’ (‘Studies in the Psychology of Sex’)30-21 | 20-11 | 10-1

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junling chen
junling chen

What is an erotic writer? I do not think Havelock Ellis counts in any way.