Disgrace under Pressure
- Stag & Groom Magazine edited by Perdita Patterson
Hanage, 130 pp, £4.00, May 2004
- Zoo edited by Paul Merrill
Emap East, 98 pp, £1.20, May 2004
- Nuts edited by Phil Hilton
IPC, 98 pp, £1.20, May 2004
- Loaded edited by Martin Daubney
IPC, 194 pp, £3.30, June 2004
- Jack edited by Michael Hodges
Dennis, 256 pp, £3.00, May 2004
- Esquire edited by Simon Tiffin
National Magazine Company, 180 pp, £3.40, June 2004
- GQ edited by Dylan Jones
Condé Nast, 200 pp, £3.20, June 2004
- Men’s Health edited by Morgan Rees
Rodale, 186 pp, £3.40, June 2004
- Arena Homme Plus: ‘The Boys of Summer’ edited by Ashley Heath
Emap East, 300 pp, £5.00, April 2004
A spokesman admits that the cancellation of the Saturday night sleeper from London to Aberdeen ‘until the end of time’ is a bitter blow for those who like to wake up on a Sunday morning to the munching of Highland cattle, but there can be no question of having the train back, say the men at Euston. They can’t find a single soul who’ll agree to work the shift.
‘It was like an alcoholic bullet flying through the night,’ a former guard says, poetically. ‘You just couldn’t cope with those guys on their stag nights. That’s what did it. The buffet car was a cesspool. They were climbing into the berths with Christ knows who. It was madness. They’d pull the emergency cord. They’d fling the bogroll down the aisles. They’d vomit. Break guitars over each other’s heads. You can’t be having that on a nice train.’ You’ll find the same sentiment echoing around the hostelries of Dublin’s Temple Bar, where stag nights have been banned, proprietors believing that the Ryanair generation has made a mockery of the art of running amok. Over on cheap flights from Prestwick and Stansted, these boys were often to be found floating trouserless in the Liffey at dawn, or staggering up Grafton Street, their T-shirts clinging to them with alcopops and spilled Sambuca.
Britain’s news-stands are heaving with magazines devoted to the rough magic of being a bloke. On first sight you think they are what my friends used to call scud mags; the girls who adorn the covers – legs wide, breasts atumble, nipples fit for pegging a couple of wet dufflecoats on – tend to be among the nearly famous, a tribe of models admired by laddish editors for their friendly shagability and the hunger in their eyes. The market for male ‘general interest’ magazines has grown massively in the UK, as if young men suddenly needed to be celebrated and serviced in a new way, as if there were a new demand among them for reassurance about the wonders of male normalcy. They look for all this in the way people like Tony Parsons have taught them, in a spirit of soft-core irony and hard-core sentiment. But apart from reassurance and a sort of avenging pride, what are these magazines selling to their readers? With their grisly combinations of sensitivity and debasement – ‘How to Bathe Your New Baby’ v. ‘Win the Chance to Pole-Dance with Pamela!’ – it may be time to consider whether these men’s magazines aren’t just the latest enlargement on the old fantasy of men having everything they want to have and finding a way to call it their destiny.
Stag & Groom Magazine is edited by a woman who has no end of tolerance for the male love of male company. She has the modern Lifestyle writer’s addiction to life as it might be lived in a pink paperback, and that means her men are allowed to be very bad and also to know that their badness is quite lovable. But maybe she’s just having a monumental laugh. ‘Stags!’ she writes in the editorial of the second issue:
Are you doing all you should? Have you partaken of sufficient extreme sports, fine dining and wild women to ensure that your sense of adventure is fully sated in advance of the big day? Have you, in short, succeeded in scaring yourselves silly enough to be ready for a little marital peace and harmony? No? Well, what the deuce are you waiting for, old boy? Get out there in the mud and allow your dearest friends to shoot seven shades of crap out of you. When you’ve finished, it’s your stagly duty to adjourn to a fine establishment for haute cuisine, Courvoisier and Cuban cigars, perhaps followed by some clinical observations of the gentler sex at play.
The ‘old boy’ thing – as well as the advertisements for honeymoons in the Maldives and for Mayfair jewellers – might suggest Stag & Groom’s target readers are a level or two up the social scale from the alcopopoholics, but the thing about new laddishness is that it has something of Tony Blair’s classless, open-palmed, universalising, ‘we are all feeling this pain together’ baloney (an attitude that understands courage to be a strong mixture of earnestness and easily available empathy), so the magazine will speak to every marriageable young fellow who is happy to see himself as just another upholder of simple truths about modern men and how we are. A gentleman’s magazine of the old sort could rely on the notion that nobody confused gentlemen and guttersnipes, but it is fashionable now for grandees to drink pints and plebs to drink champagne,[*] allowing Stag & Groom to do its thing in an untroubled way, talking about football and chest-waxing in the same quick breath, murmuring piously about the best man’s duties and the wisdom of choosing the Lotus Elise as a wedding car, as if the trials of manhood were a holy pilgrimage, as if, indeed, the rites of male vanity were aspects of a religion into which we have all very recently been born-again.
After reading a few issues of the newest men’s weeklies, Zoo and Nuts, I began to wonder if the readers of these magazines might want to have sex with their chums. It’s like men who want to sleep with their best friend’s wife: why don’t they just cut out the decoy? Zoo presents a world of men joined by the same desire, not for the same women (though they wouldn’t say no), but for a community of leering men. All these magazines are, in the end, about providing a sense of belonging, but few are as blatant in their invitation to the fantasy of tribal kinship as Zoo, which runs a regular item called ‘Guilty Wanks: Toss Off and Then Think About What You’ve Just Done’. The list underneath, detailing the people readers are ashamed of thinking about when they’re having sex with themselves, includes the child pop group S Club 8, ‘National Geographic bare-breasted tribeswomen’, Natalie Portman in the film Leon, and ‘your best mate’s girlfriend’. Zoo loves the notion that all men are the same at heart: dirty and funny and fucked-up and violent, slaves to their needs and not ashamed – the articles about football brutality snuggle up quite naturally with ‘The Ten Sexiest Rears in the World’. The editors borrow the notion of male universality from the spirit of Britain under Blair, but the unfunny barbarism of the magazine’s content shows there are still differences between men, if only in degree.
You’ll find that no pride is greater than the pride that comes with being thick. Britain is filled with people who are really proud of their stupidity. I’m surprised Nuts hasn’t made this its rubric – ‘We’re Thick. And Everybody Else Is a Tosser’ – yet, for all that, it wears its density more or less lightly. It favours stories about gangland hitmen (Brian ‘The Milkman’ Wright, ‘during his drug-dealing days he always delivered’; John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, once ‘one of Britain’s richest men, owning a fleet of private planes, helicopters, boats and cars’), and every few pages there’s a soap star in her knickers, usually followed by a report, written with barely contained excitement, about a massive pile-up on some notorious bend of a foreign racing track. A delicately positioned article called ‘Please Smash Me in the Face!’ accompanies photographs of a bloodstained skinhead with a face like a plate of steak tartare:
Being thrown headfirst into a barbed-wire fence doesn’t sound like much fun – but this senseless gibbon does it as his hobby. During a blood-spattered Backyard Wrestling match between shaven-headed fighter Karnage and his rival Sic, Karnage was repeatedly smashed in the face with a strip light then elbow-dropped onto a bed of barbed wire and cacti.
Alas, poor Karnage. The popularity of Nuts is, in some ways, as hard to understand as the success of the Sun – unless you take it for granted that a frightening percentage of young British men are sociopaths. In that sense, Nuts and Zoo are closer to their tabloid newspaper cousins than to other men’s magazines: mostly, though, what they resemble are mad-dog football fanzines and the kinds of website that carry pictures of suicide victims.
The thirst for a beery men’s magazine – not a girly magazine, but something that could both celebrate and make common cause with men’s worst habits – was first attended to ten years ago with the inauguration of Loaded. The anniversary campaign last month featured billboards across the country showing a large-breasted girl with the words ‘Loaded: Ten Years Fighting for Feminism’ printed across her skimpy top. The cover of the June issue offers free beer and Durex, but my copy just contained a packet of Extra Strong Mints, which I’m trying not to take personally. Loaded tries to be bubbly about its degeneracy, but it’s mostly just a jokeless, pulpless exercise in self-abuse. Of course it tends to like lagers and motors, fighting and hooligans, and imagines the rest of the world is fraudulent and missing out because it has other things on its mind. What’s sad about the magazine is that, despite its defensive bluster, it has no convictions to be courageous about, and there’s nothing in its contents worth attacking. It shows as many pictures as it can of coy girls concealing their nipples, and sandwiches these between rubbishy little sections flogging aftershave. Loaded, too, likes the notion that it’s conducting a conversation with real men, a conversation that needs very few words. Yet the British lad magazine is not about men at all or about the business of being a grown-up person; it’s fuelled by a childish notion of hedonism – pills, thrills and bellyaches – which sees politics as a mug’s game and wives as a curse. They may be right about that, but if so they are right in a fairly boring way: no man older than 21 wants to be told they’re a failure unless they live like George Best. And that’s Loaded’s central anxiety: it exhibits a very British smallness of style in its understanding of male recklessness, and its world of Saturday nights is really a lament for passions spent or never experienced.
So why are men’s magazines in Britain so largely devoted to a tittering schoolboy’s understanding of life and laughter? In America, where publications such as Esquire and GQ originated, men’s magazines weren’t scuzzy in the way ours are, and quite often they were venues for some of the country’s best and most expensive journalism. Playboy and Esquire, particularly, could produce, and have, anthologies of first-rate political and cultural journalism, and even this month, when the newish British lad mag Jack flags on its cover ‘A Speed Special Starring Fast Planes, Bikes and Women’, the much derided Playboy advertises a long piece by Gore Vidal on God and the state. Jack runs a piece about British wrestling in which even the writer seems completely bored with the subject:
I ask Keith to tell me the difference between the British wrestler and the new breed of Americans who seem to have moved wrestling on a notch. Apart, of course, from one being built on steak puddings and the other on steroids. ‘British wrestling is somewhere the family can go and have a good night out. It represents a typical good night’s entertainment,’ says Keith.
When the ring is up the wrestlers hurry into the dressing rooms to get changed. The audience is already arriving. There will be 100 to 150 people, mainly made up of friends and family and a few obligatory old ladies sucking on boiled sweets. As the audience shuffle in carrying chairs I scan a borrowed running sheet.
Say what you like about the 1960s, and say what you like about America: the original Esquire would have sent George Plimpton to write about the wrestling, and would have given him space for twenty thousand words. It’s hard to know what Jack’s editors are offering readers, or how they look at the world: perhaps they’re just fed up and Jack is a magazine for fed-up blokes, or a magazine edited by people who are badly hungover from reading Loaded. In any event, when a men’s magazine lacks care and conviction to this extent – when even its pieces on Italian football and foreign bloodbaths are stale – you begin to ask yourself if the British male it’s supposed to attract isn’t perhaps a little disastrous. Is he tired? Is he upset? Is he depressed?
Nostalgia and small-mindedness are among the most exhausting things to hum a tune about, but so is loneliness, and a lot of what you see when you look into these magazines is just men being confused about what to make of themselves. If you look closely at the stuff, you see how many of the men either writing or being written about associate ageing with isolation: the smell of fear rises out of the aftershave ads and the free sachets of facial scrub on every other page. Who am I? What am I becoming and can I stand it? Esquire, which tends to be the best-written of these publications, and which maintains its connection to its own traditions by running the odd piece you might care to read, has a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s essays to give away with the current number. It still has some ‘Sexy but Deadly’ micro-celeb on the cover, but inside, the anxieties I’ve been talking about are more humanly displayed. Henry Sutton writes about being a ‘Broken-Up Man’. It starts with him crying in front of his seven-year-old daughter:
A friend of mine keeps ringing me up to say that being a bloke and getting divorced means I’m on a one-way ticket to a bedsit in Balham. ‘You’ll get screwed,’ he says. Having spoken to a couple of lawyers, having realised how things are stacked against me legally, well, yes, I probably am going to get screwed. I’m screwed already. I’m 40. I’m totally broke and I’m almost homeless. How the fuck did I let this happen?
A few years ago Robert Bly celebrated the notion of men running into the woods to beat their own chests, but many of the newer bibles of male self-realisation unwittingly celebrate something else: the notion that men might flee to the big cities and grow their own breasts. At any rate, there is a very strenuous blend of women-envy in some of the magazines for men. Richard Wollheim has just finished telling us, in ‘Germs’, his frighteningly good memoir extracted in these pages, about wanting to be a woman sixty years ago. ‘I knew that what I wanted,’ he wrote, ‘was, not so much to have her, though I also wanted that, as to be her.’ And later: ‘The way to a woman’s heart, I had come to believe, was along the hard, stony, arduous track of effeminacy.’
Another kind of men’s magazine has been busy turning that arduous track into the primrose path. GQ, like the others, always has a glossy girl on the cover, but the magazine is actually quite gay, at least in the sense that the late Ian Hamilton used the term. Hamilton thought it was gay to look left and right when you crossed the road, and he thought it was gay for men to blow-dry their hair. This went on for a while until one day he made the point to Martin Amis that it was actually quite gay to sleep with a woman. GQ is gay in that way: it appears to envy women more than lust for them, and its pages are full of tips on how men should depilate, breast-enlarge, slicken, tart up, and generally make themselves a bit more attractive to members of the non-opposite sex.
On one page, the film director Eli Roth, described as the maker of the ‘body-horror-in-the-woods’ movie Cabin Fever (nothing to do with Robert Bly), says: ‘I’m a closet metrosexual. I try to look like I’ve just rolled out of bed but the truth of the matter is I have spent thousands of dollars on Kiehl’s products. Plus, when girls come over, my stock of Kiehl’s is the deal-breaker for them spending the night.’ Then there’s an article about the latest sex thing: from Japan obviously, and now big in America, called bukkake, where men don’t have sex with women but all stand around together in a room and masturbate over the girl. Then there’s a piece about the joy of not wearing underpants. The agony uncle makes Quentin Crisp look like Charles Bronson, or is it Charles Bronson like Quentin Crisp? ‘Quilt covers or eiderdowns?’ an anxious letter-writer asks. ‘Blinds or curtains? Carpet or wooden flooring? Wallpaper or paint? Wall lights or free-standing lamps? Mirrored or wooden wardrobes? I’ve just got my first house and need some advice on how to decorate my bedroom. I don’t want to put the ladies off.’
‘You could use sacks as blankets,’ comes the reply, ‘have bin bags as curtains, spray graffiti on the walls, only have a torch for a light – ANYTHING as long as you don’t install mirrored wardrobes.’ Later on there’s a two-page spread of the young actor James Franco’s lips. That’s Gentleman’s Quarterly for you: a magazine for men who want to have what women have – clean nails, hairless chests, fresh armpits and moist lips. A magazine for men clever enough to want to look like the kind of person they’re supposed to want to sleep with themselves. And seeing as half the people who read GQ probably do sleep with themselves, this might just be considered sound editorial policy.
Since good-looking naked men started appearing on the covers of magazines aimed at men, the incidence of bulimia among British males has risen by 100 per cent. Bulimia sufferers are still more than 90 per cent female, and of the men a great proportion are gay, but the numbers are also going up for men in general, as if to confirm what the experts always said about the pressure exerted by images of the perfect on the imperfect. The June issue of Men’s Health offers Britain’s eager blokes the chance to ‘Be Built like Brad Pitt’. The magazine shows men how to have sex, how to shave, how to book a holiday, but mainly – relentlessly – how to change the shape of their bodies, always accompanied by pictures of men with chests as broad and pert as the plains of Montana. Of course, women have been putting up with this sort of harassment for years, and perhaps the success of Men’s Health – among those of us who love it, and the figures are rising – is God’s way of torturing us with unguents, dumb-bells, fancy toothbrushes and canoes, to make up for years of magazines telling women about the needfulness of dieting if you want to keep your man, with helpful pictures of the smilingly skinny. I’ve heard men saying the men in Men’s Health make them sick: they don’t mean they disapprove of them, they mean they disapprove of themselves in relation to them, and that’s a comeuppance. The threat of the male gaze has been making many women and gay men ill for years, but men’s magazines show that the threat has now become general enough to be counted a cultural worry. All men now experience other men’s looks, and that is one of the anxieties these magazines sometimes exploit and sometimes suppress.
All the men in Arena’s Homme Plus look like Greta Garbo, like Marlene Dietrich, or like women done up to look like Valentino. The editors declare that they edited the issue – ‘The Boys of Summer’ – with photographs of Hollywood legends pinned to the wall, and the resulting issue is perhaps the highest form of camp you’ll encounter this season, unless you happen to be a roadie on Cher’s ‘Farewell Tour’ of Britain. Fashion is answerable to nothing but fashion, and male vanity has a million fresh occasions every day, so the fact that the men in Homme Plus dribble over one another and rest their hair-gelled heads on one another’s shaved chests should be no great cause for worry. It’s just a prettier version of the sort of thing that used to happen on the London-to-Aberdeen sleeper every Saturday night.
[*] Sales of champagne have risen by 900 per cent in the UK over the last ten years. The late Duke of Devonshire did not drink it all, though he certainly drank some of it.