Sex and books: London's most erotic writers

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    10

    John Cleland

    Kingston-born John Cleland (1709-1789) wrote his novel ‘Fanny Hill: or, the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ in Fleet Prison to pay off his debts. He was arrested for obscenity in November 1749.In his own words‘Her sturdy stallion had now unbutton’d, and produced naked, stiff, and erect, that wonderful machine, which I had never seen before, and which, for the interest my own seat of pleasure began to take furiously in it, I star’d at with all the eyes I had.’ (‘Fanny Hill’)

    9

    Gerald Kersh

    Pulp writer Kersh grew up in Teddington and published his first novel, ‘Jews Without Jehovah’, in 1934. ‘Night and the City’ followed in 1938 and was a bestseller. In his own words ‘Zoë was a handsome girl… one of those girls whose breasts, mature at 15, rapidly swell to a flaccid over-ripeness in a humid atmosphere of eroticism, like tomatoes in a hothouse.’ (‘Night and the City’)


    John King (author ‘The Football Factory’)
    ‘Gerald Kersh was a west London boy with family in Soho. “Night and the City” records a Soho of drinkers and dreamers, spivs and streetwalkers. Kersh offers a glimpse of a London that was rarely recorded, a flamboyant world he knew up close. “Night and the City” follows Harry Fabian, a pimp planning to repay the girl keeping him in suits and haircuts by selling her abroad as a sex slave.’

    8

    Geoffrey Chaucer

    Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in 1343. He managed to juggle writing with the significant post of Comptroller of the Customs for the port of London, a title he held for 12 years. In his own words ‘Derk was the night as pich, or as the cole/ And at the window out she putte hir hole/And Absolon, him fil no bet ne wers/But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers/Ful savourly, er he was war of this.’ (‘The Miller’s Tale’)Jonathan Trigell (author ‘Boy A’, ‘Cham’) ‘Geoff really comes into his own when he lets drop the chivalry and lets rip with the bawdry. “The Miller’s Tale” has tub-hopping two-timing and a third suitor tricked into kissing the giggling owner’s arse instead of the imagined innocent lips: it predates “Porky’s” by 600 years.’

    7

    William Shakespeare

    Everyone knows that Shakespeare is full of rude bits, especially puns on ‘Will’ and, of course, all that business in ‘Twelfth Night’ with Olivia’s Cs, Us and Ts. Thomas Bowdler was so enraged by it that in 1818 he published ‘Family Shakespeare’, a censored version of the plays which cut passages he considered obscene. In his own words ‘Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry/Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.’ (‘Venus and Adonis’)
    Jonathan Bate (professor of English, Warwick University)
    ‘I’ve been wondering recently which are Shakespeare’s most Shakespearean plays. I think one answer might be “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, a comedy packed with wit, elegance, philosophical reflection and filthy jokes. For Shakespeare, love meant immersing oneself in each of these four dimensions. To put it more bluntly, Shakespeare at one and the same time had the most brilliant and most sexed-up mind you could possibly imagine.’
    Stella Duffy (author ‘Mouths of Babes’, ‘The Room of Lost Things’)
    ‘From Mistress Quickly’s innuendo through the hungrier of the sonnets to the passionate porn of Hamlet in his meanest scenes with Ophelia, Shakespeare has the widest range of rude. One of the reasons he’s better than most is that unlike many of his contemporaries, his women’s mouths are as dirty and smart as the men’s.’ ‘The Room of Lost Things’ is published by Virago at £14.99.

    6

    John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester

    Drunken wit and parodist John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) was famous for his ‘extravagant frolics’ at the court of Charles II, whose patronage he spurned by writing the poem ‘A Satyr on Charles II’: ‘Poor prince! Thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court/Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.’ He lived two lives: one of rural domesticity, the other of urban decadence, with male lovers and several mistresses. In his own words ‘Each imitative branch does twine/In some loved fold of Aretine/And nightly now beneath their shade/Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made.’ (‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’) Tom Morris (associate director, National Theatre) ‘Rochester reminds me of an unhinged poacher, moving noiselessly through the night and shooting every convention that moves. Bishop Burnett, who coached him to an implausible death-bed repentance, said that he was unable to express any feeling without oaths and obscenities. He seemed like a punk in a frock coat. But once the straw dolls have been slain, Rochester celebrates in a sexual landscape all of his own.’

    5

    Thomas Nashe

    Nashe was an Elizabethan pamphleteer and satirist born in 1567. He’s best known now for the picaresque novel ‘The Unfortunate Traveller’.In his own words ‘My little dildo shall supply their kinde/A knave, that moves as light as leaves by winde/That bendeth not, nor fouldeth anie deale/But stands as stiff, as he were made of steele’ (‘Choice of Valentines’) Robert Lewis (author ‘Swansea Terminal’) ‘Nashe’s saltiest piece of doggerel is a 316-line poem about what can happen when your local wench goes upmarket. After tracking his down in a Southwark brothel, our young Roister Doister hands over a small fortune to the madam only to find that in the clinch, his manhood is not up to the job. Whereupon she whips out her dildo and finishes herself off, giving rise to much reflection on the potency/pointlessness of the male member. It existed rather furtively in manuscipt form only until printed as Victorian smut.’

    4

    Algernon Charles Swinburne

    Born 1837, tiny Swinburne had two key obsessions: the Middle Ages and lesbianism. He liked to be flogged; also to advertise his deviance – he spread a rumour that he had had sex with, then eaten, a monkey. Oscar Wilde was sceptical and called Swinburne ‘a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser’. In his own words ‘Saw the Lesbians kissing across their smitten/Lutes with lips more sweet than the sound of lute-strings.’ (‘Sapphics’) Jilly Cooper (author ‘Riders’, ‘Wicked!’) ‘Oh, he’s so erotic! He talks about exchanging “the lilies and languours of virtue/For the raptures and roses of vice”. He was alcoholic, and a sado-masochist, and very frowned on at the time. Robert Buchanan described Swinburne’s and [fellow poet] Dante Rossetti’s style of poetry as the Fleshly School of Poetry because he thought it depraved. In the 1870s, Rossetti called a meeting to decide what to do “for and about Swinburne”. And their friend, the lawyer Theodore Watts, took charge of him and pretty much locked him in a house in Putney for the next 30 years to save him from himself and allow him to write.’

    3

    Kenneth Tynan

    Kenneth Tynan was born in Birmingham in 1927. As theatre critic of The Observer he championed kitchen-sink dramas like ‘Look Back in Anger’ and inspired fear with his ruthless wit. He was the first man to say ‘fuck’ on British TV. Mary Whitehouse suggested that Tynan should ‘have his bottom spanked’, little suspecting how much the self-confessed sadomasochist would have loved that.
    In his own words ‘Since last November I have been seeing (and spanking) a fellow spanking addict, a girl called Nicole [a pseudonym]. Her fantasy – dormant until I met her – is precisely to be bent over with knickers taken down to be spanked, caned or otherwise punished, preferably with the buttocks parted to disclose the anus.’ (‘The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan’)
    Jane Edwardes (theatre editor, Time Out)
    ‘Tynan was a star-fucker, a socialist with a taste for spanking, and an elegant writer with a cause. Nearly 30 years after his death, his shadow still looms large over those who have taken up seats in the stalls.’

    2

    Alan Hollinghurst

    Novelist and poet Hollinghurst, 54, first gained plaudits for his 1988 novel ‘The Swimming Pool Library’, a vivid and explicit account of London gay life in the early 1980s. He won the Booker Prize in 2004 for ‘The Line of Beauty’. In his own words ‘His middle finger pushed into the deep divide, as smooth as a boy’s, his fingertip even pressed a little way into the dry pucker so that Leo let out a happy grunt.’(‘The Line of Beauty’)
    Charlotte Mendelson (author ‘When We Were Bad’, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’)
    ‘Alan Hollinghurst’s novels are brilliant for so many reasons. But his most astonishing gift is that he makes every reader, of whatever sexual orientation, quiver with homoerotic longing. He turns us all into shyly arty gay men with rampaging but misdirected libidos, and we enjoy every minute of it.’

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    'Around all is the ivory flesh of belly and thighs': Lying girl with violet stockings, Egon Schiele

    1

    Walter, aka Henry Spencer Ashbee

    Born in Southwark in 1834, Henry Spencer Ashbee was a textile trader by profession. But his hobby was collecting pornography from around the world and indexing it in bibliographies with fantastically cumbersome titles like ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum: being Notes Bio-Biblio- Icono-graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books’. He was part of a loose fraternity of sex-obsessed Victorian gentlemen which included the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (see No 4) and Richard Francis Burton, the Orientalist writer-explorer who first translated the ‘Kama Sutra’ into English. Ashbee is generally believed to be ‘Walter’, the pseudonymous author of the sexual memoir ‘My Secret Life’, first published in 1888 in Amsterdam and effectively banned for the next 100 years. (A printer from Bradford who attempted to publish it privately in 1969 was sentenced to two years in prison for purveying filth.) Only 20 or so copies of the multi-volume work were originally printed. Magician and occultist Aleister Crowley owned a complete set, as did silent film star Harold Lloyd. The word ‘cunt’ is used by Walter 5,357 times in the course of the memoir, while ‘frig’ appears 1,299 times. In his own words ‘There is no more exquisite, voluptuously thrilling sight, than that of a well-formed woman sitting or lying down naked, with legs closed, her cunt hidden by the thighs, and only indicated by the shade from the curls of her motte, which thicken near to the top of the temple of Venus as if to hide it. Then as her thighs gently open and the gap in the bottom of her belly opens slightly with them, the swell of the lips show, the delicate clitoris and nymphae are disclosed, and all is fringed with crisp, soft, curly, shiny hair, whilst around all is the smooth ivory flesh of belly and thighs…’ (‘My Secret Life’) Sarah Waters (author ‘Fingersmith’, ‘Tipping the Velvet’) ‘I first came across “My Secret Life” while researching nineteenth-century sexual underworlds. I read it alongside various pieces of Victorian pornography, but Walter’s 11-volume sexual memoir is much stranger, more endearing and more compelling than mere porn. A brilliant storyteller who was prepared to go literally anywhere for a fuck, he gives us a Kinsey-esque cross-section of nineteenth-century erotic life, leading us unblushingly into all those urban spaces – the bedrooms, the brothels, the privies, the darkened parks and omnibuses – which lurk just beyond the margins in the work of more respectable London writers like Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It’s fascinating, eye-opening stuff.’
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‘There is no more exquisite, voluptuously thrilling sight, than that of a well-formed woman sitting or lying down naked, with legs closed, her cunt hidden by the thighs, and only indicated by the shade from the curls of her motte, which thicken near to the top of the temple of Venus as if to hide it. Then as her thighs gently open and the gap in the bottom of her belly opens slightly with them, the swell of the lips show, the delicate clitoris and nymphae are disclosed, and all is fringed with crisp, soft, curly, shiny hair, whilst around all is the smooth ivory flesh of belly and thighs…’ (‘My Secret Life’) ‘I first came across “My Secret Life” while researching nineteenth-century sexual underworlds. I read it alongside various pieces of Victorian pornography, but Walter’s 11-volume sexual memoir is much stranger, more endearing and more compelling than mere porn. A brilliant storyteller who was prepared to go literally anywhere for a fuck, he gives us a Kinsey-esque cross-section of nineteenth-century erotic life, leading us unblushingly into all those urban spaces – the bedrooms, the brothels, the privies, the darkened parks and omnibuses – which lurk just beyond the margins in the work of more respectable London writers like Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It’s fascinating, eye-opening stuff.’
30-21
| 20-11 | 10-1

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