Jane Austen’s Persuasion: ‘And they’re not permitted to get away with airily claiming that subtle literary passages are significantly sexier – hey, Jane Austen is actually truly erotic.’ Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
The Literary Review has been a force for good in British public life, and I must sentimentally say that it was the initial location I ever had something published. But in 1993 its editor, Auberon Waugh, developed a monster, soon to raise its ugly head once again – the undesirable sex award, a prize for the most embarrassing description of sex in a new novel.
On 1 December the winner will be announced, and the frontrunner seems to be Morrissey – whose debut novel List of the Lost has been extensively panned for its silly sexy bits. Nicely, I haven’t read that. But the bad sex award is a terribly English show of smug, gigglingly unfunny, charmless and spiteful bullying.
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The writers who are baited in this way are of course supposed to grin and bear it, since to object in any way would be gleefully seized upon as proof of humourless priggishness. It is like a nightmare ritual from the prefects’ space at some seedy minor public school.
When he won the prize, AA Gill, to his wonderful credit, crisply compared Waugh’s own sex life to “the sound of one particular hand clapping”. I now have a suggestion. Those awarding the prize need to be compelled to cite literary passages that they consider are good sex: ie, explicit descriptions of sex that are not embarrassing.
And they’re not permitted to get away with airily claiming that subtle literary passages are a lot sexier – hey, Jane Austen is truly truly erotic, and so on, etc. No. The undesirable sex judges need to say what explicit sex is very good, and thereby danger revealing some thing about their personal private lives.
Really low-cost thrills
Talking of literary sex, the topic was raised among the mourners at the current sad and lovely funeral of the Observer’s legendary film critic Philip French, in a way that would have entertained Philip himself.
A single of the congregants, Karl Marx’s biographer Francis Wheen, told me that a notorious erotic novel – a work by the New Statesman’s former film critic John Coleman – had recently been reissued as a Kindle download. Whilst pursuing a bohemian and dissolute existence in Paris, Coleman wrote erotica for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, in a series that included functions by the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet. His book was named The Enormous Bed, published under the pseudonym Henry Jones, the story of an amorous young man’s postwar adventures. It’s now offered once more for £1.49.
Adele’s river roots
There’s a new explanation for acquiring excited about Adele’s new album 25. It has loads of vivid psycho-geography. One of the most striking tracks is River Lea, in which Adele finds the mystic supply of her inspiration not just in the north London district of Tottenham, exactly where she was born, but in the nearby River Lea itself, which flows from the Chiltern Hills through east and north London before joining the Thames.
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I’ve always located it fantastic: when our son was quite small, we used to take him for bike rides by the Lea: it has an eerie rus in urbe feel. Here’s what Adele sings: “When I was a youngster I grew up by the River Lea / There was anything in the water, now that something’s in me … But it’s in my roots, it’s in my veins / It’s in my blood.”
Iain Sinclair is going to really like Adele’s song. He is passionate about the Lea. Here’s how he wrote about it in 2002: “The earlier spelling … was Ley, which is even far better. Lea as ley, it often had that really feel. A route out. A river track that walked the walker, a wet road. The Lea fed our Hackney dreaming: a water margin.” I feel Adele must invite Sinclair up on stage to sing a special River Lea duet.