Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Wages of Sin and Enlightenment (in Three Parts): Part Two – Florence

From Venice we travelled on to Florence; here things improved in our relationship.

Our love-making took on a more relaxed tempo. The urgency of the doctor’s ardour seemed to diminish; her drive for sexual excess to grow less insistent. For me it made a welcome change and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the height of fervour might be passed.

We stopped snapping at each other under the stress of her unreasonable physical demands. The situation grew calmer, and strangely enough it began to feel more fulfilling. We started to go about Florence with increased zest and savoured every moment of being together. Love in the afternoon was dispensed with. We had too many other distractions as we tried to get around all the art galleries and shops for which the city was renowned. Everywhere we went there were artisan craftsmen working in their individual workshops, producing items of jewellery in gold or silver, or leather or decorative glassware.

There was one teacher I had been very keen on when I was at school who would often talk to me about Naples and Florence and their place in history. It had been a dream that I might visit both cities one day, and now the dream was being fulfilled in the case of Florence. What was more, the visit was being made in style, since the doctor had the means to demand the best – I could not believe my good fortune. Here I was in the city where, during the Renaissance, the ruling family of merchant bankers, the Medici, had used their wealth and patronage to make it a centre of art and learning. The Florentines in their day had been pre-eminent in appreciating the importance for humanity of the driving forces of imagination and intellect. The poet Dante was a native of the city, though forced to live some of his life away from it for political reasons. Brunelleschi had invented modern perspective there and designed the great dome of the cathedral. Giotto established a new realism in fresco painting in the church of Santa Croce, Leonardo and Michelangelo came to the city to work. Galileo defined many of the principals of modern science in Florence, under the protecting auspices of the Medici – though ultimately they could not save him from the persecution of the Inquisition and he was forced to recant his confirmation of Copernicus’s theory that the earth moves round the sun.

A catalogue of facts went spilling through my head. I had no way of guessing what an important focus for many of my activities the city would become some thirty years later when I ran a conglomerate dealing with luxury goods and fine textiles. In those days to come I would be visiting Florence on a regular basis, seeking to buy and market the finest of hand-crafted artefacts that their manufacturers could offer. Similarly I could not know, as I stood and admired a handsome Tuscan villa called La Pietra, which looked out over the city from its imposing hillside position, that this too would play a part in my future life. It stood behind its imposing iron gates, beyond a grand approach of stone steps and balustrades, surrounded by a marvellous garden landscape with trees, shrubs and statuary. La Pietra was the home of the Actons, whose familial links with Florence and the rest of Italy went back well over a century. It housed one of the finest collections of art and antiques ever assembled.

The assembling had been done by Arthur Acton, a businessman and speculator, and his American wife Hortense. The old couple still lived in their fifty-four-room palace at the time with their son Harold. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that a day would come when I would be invited there as a guest of Sir Harold Acton, as he later became, and forge with him a friendship that would last for the rest of Sir Harold’s life. Harold was one of the outstanding scholars and raconteurs of his generation, though he did not come in to the freedom of his full inheritance until after the death of his mother at the age of ninety. Right to the end she never trusted him with his own latchkey – but such odd stories awaited discovery a good way along the road ahead.

In the evenings on this first visit to Florence I and the doctor dined in style at fashionable restaurants and sipped vintage Italian wines until late in the evening. I, who was not accustomed to heavy drinking, was always tipsy as we negotiated our way back to our hotel. Generally, once in the room we would hurriedly dispose of our clothes and just collapse on the bed, lying flat out as the night ticked by. Yet, however profoundly asleep I was I would be remorselessly roused to semi-consciousness in the small hours as her roving hands explored my body and its sexual state.

Then, somehow or other, I would find myself manoeuvring to perch on top of her and thump away, unable to tell whether I was groaning in ecstasy or pain.

The Wages of Sin and Enlightenment (in Three Parts): Part One – Venice

In the summer of 1950 I took time off from university to visit my parents in Haifa who I had not seen for eighteen months.

On the return journey to London having spent a month in their company I boarded a luxurious modern Italian ship on its way to Venice.

On board the brand new ship everything was gleaming. I was content just to sit in a deck chair in the sun, reading a book or chatting with my fellow passengers. The ship engendered such a friendly atmosphere that everyone sailing in her seemed to be enjoying themselves. Crossing the Mediterranean at this leisurely pace in perfect summer conditions relaxed the mind and refreshed the spirit in a most therapeutic way.

Meal times were important occasions. The passengers counted the hours in anticipation, and when the dining room doors were opened there was always an unseemly dash to get served first. The diners devoured their food like a starving mob suddenly faced with a mountain of plenty. The meals were certainly delicious, with incomparable pasta hors d’oeuvres sharpening the appetite for the delights to come.

Three days into the trip, and there had been no incidents to ruffle the calm surface. The beautiful weather continued, and after sundown the night sky became a canopy of stars. I would sit on deck in the dark for a long time each evening, reluctant to go down to my cabin and shut the door.

On the fourth night, as I was watching the evening sea and sky at their most glorious, I became aware of a couple close by who were having a furious argument. It ended with the man walking away in a state of high agitation, while the woman remained standing where she was, clutching the ship’s rail. I could see she was crying. After several minutes, I stood up and moved closer; then I asked if she needed help. She mumbled something slightly incoherent in reply, but I understood that I was not intruding and that if I wanted to keep her company, she would not be averse to it.

After we had spoken for a little while, the woman began to recover herself. She explained that she was a doctor from Argentina who had been attending an international seminar in Israel. Her plan had been to take a short break in Europe in company with a man she had met at the seminar; the same one with whom she had just been quarrelling. Now the relationship was over and she would have to go alone. I commiserated with her over her spoilt plans, but she retorted briskly that people had to take such reversals in their stride and improvise as the need arose.

By close to midnight we had talked for almost two hours. As we bid each other goodnight, we promised to meet again next morning. I had told her all she needed to know about myself; there we left matters for the time being.

The next day when we met again as arranged, she threw me into utter confusion by asking me to accompany her on the planned tour of Europe. The trip would be a short one, she explained – no longer than ten days. She was expected back in her home country shortly. I was staggered by the offer. My first thought was that I had very little spare money and could not afford to go anywhere except straight to London as planned, but she overcame these misgivings by saying if I accepted the invitation she would pay for the entire trip.

My mind went back to Lara, from whom I had parted so recently. Somewhat older than Lara, the Argentinian doctor was in her early thirties. She had a shapely figure and a pretty face. Lara had the strong features often associated with firmness of character and single-mindedness. She also had the Semitic glow that young Jewish women possess in their teens and that remains with them until full maturity. Lara’s radiance was in fact exceptional, but, because she was older, the doctor possessed a greater sophistication and the air of a woman endowed with worldly wisdom.

While I had felt extremely fond of Lara, I knew in my heart of hearts that our relationship could only be short-lived because our lives were so different. The age gap between us as a couple had been slight, but the cultural divide was wide. There was little hope that bridging this would be easy.

However, the doctor from Argentina, I reflected, was quite attractive as an older woman. It would have been churlish, even crazy, to refuse the invitation. Experience with an older woman, especially a doctor, could not fail to advance my education vis-à-vis the opposite sex. As I accepted the offer of being a travelling companion, without reflecting on the possible consequences, an expression of relief came over the doctor’s face and she kissed me in her excitement.

When the ship docked at Venice, the doctor insisted we take a gondola to our hotel. It was the most convenient way to travel in the city, besides being the most elegant. As the gondola made its way through the narrow, winding canals, I gazed in wonder at the grandeur and picturesque decadence I saw all around me; I was intrigued and enchanted by the mysterious old houses leaning over waterways that served the function of streets. The hotel was a haunt of the rich and famous, renowned for its decor and impeccable service.

We were allocated a magnificent double room with a view over the water that was breathtaking. I was at once alive to the majesty of Venice and could not stop exclaiming at its beauty and ancient architecture. I was also aware that I would be expected to earn my keep, one way or another, in the large double bed. I felt some apprehension over what was in store for me, but while the prospect, I calculated, could have its downsides, it should have its rewards.

As soon as we had settled in, we set off on the first of several tours of discovery. We went all over the city on foot, or sometimes took a gondola to negotiate particular areas that were more accessible by water. We visited all the famous sights, such as St Mark’s Basilica, and went shopping for Venetian handicrafts, especially leather goods, which the doctor loved. At frequent intervals she insisted on buying me a gift, to remind me, so she said, of the wonderful days we were spending together in the city of the doges. Before we went out to dinner, on that and every evening, she gave me a wad of notes to ensure I had enough money to take care of the bill.

Her sense of what was correct in her comportment in public places could not be faulted. She dressed well, in conventional fashion, with nothing overpowering or showy. The expensive quality of her clothes ensured her general appearance was smart yet low key.

It was in the bedroom, as I had expected, that she gave rein to the flamboyant side of her nature. The doctor’s collection of seductive cotton and silk lingerie was fabulous. There was no failure of taste, but provocation was undoubtedly high on the agenda.

A routine for the afternoon soon developed. After a good lunch, with several glasses of fine Italian wine, which the doctor always chose with care from the menu, she insisted we should have a siesta for an hour. Once this was over, she would take a bubble bath for twenty minutes, returning to bed with a towel wrapped around her waist which she then flipped away to reveal her naked body. The immediate impression was of the glistening freshness possessed by a certain type of woman. Her skin looked soft and alluring; her breasts, small and firm, were enhanced by pinkish nipples that seemed permanently erect.

To begin the proceedings, the doctor would ask me to rub her whole body with a kind of aromatic oil that she always had with her. She orchestrated every move. First I must rub one of her breasts, then the other, gently, with the most delicate touch, applying no pressure whatsoever. The softer the touch, the more appreciative she grew. Then she instructed me how to massage her inner thighs in the vicinity of her vagina, using a teasing irregularity. She spread her legs to give my hands easier access. At times she would tell me to stop, but only to pause before I moved on to another area. All this was part of the prelude before the real action began. The process was a lengthy one, involving no haste. It had to be executed in such a way as to prolong her sense of gratification.

She appeared to be well versed in the arts of love. After every short interlude she urged me to wet my lips with saliva and run them tenderly against her nipples, while, with her own hand, she caressed her clitoris. Visibly excited by now, she asked me to remove my clothes and lie next to her. As I lay there naked, she ran her tongue all over my body, giving little bites from time to time and making my genitals convulse with fluttering touches from her fingers. In a heightened state of arousal, I wondered how I could contain myself. As I sought to possess her, she wiggled her body and crossed her legs teasingly to prevent it.

She continued for some time, alternatively curbing my arousal then reflaming it, until every nerve in my body was trembling with desire. As soon as she sensed I reached this point she allowed me freedom of movement. My thrust into her body was deep and intense. As we reached mutual orgasm it seemed that our intimate fluids mingled. For ten minutes afterwards we both felt utterly exhausted and drained and could hardly move.

This process, always leading to a frenzied climax, was repeated on three consecutive afternoons; at night, things took on a more down-to-earth dimension.

Returning to the room after dinner, having consumed a fair amount of wine, we would collapse on the bed, refrain from all foreplay, and simply fuck until sleep overcame us. I was at an age of sexual peak, but nevertheless I was beginning to find it impossible to keep up with the doctor’s insatiable demands for more; less would have made life easier where I was concerned.

My energies were beginning to desert me. I wondered how much longer I could cope with this situation. The punishing schedule was beginning to take its toll, and we started to bicker as small resentments began to surface. Still there was a positive side. She was teaching me how to delay my orgasm; how to climax simultaneously with a sexual partner. It was a matter of mind over body, she told me. You can control it by switching your mind completely away, turning your thoughts to other subjects and blotting out your surroundings.

Tantric sex, the doctor claimed, could be achieved by applying yoga to the mind as well as to the body. You had to persevere to master it. She was confident that she could teach me how to perfect it. The challenge for me to control my ejaculation was painfully difficult at first, and my natural impatience did not help matters. Then, with each lesson, my anxiety about my orgasmic function began to simmer down.

I also began to understand how, with women and sex, it was futile to hurry matters. The process had to be allowed to take its natural course. A languid approach was more desirable than an urgent one. It was important to create the right atmosphere of eroticism.

Women, I soon realised, have a different perspective from men, on many things – their physical needs in general being tempered by their emotional ones. It was necessary for sex to be savoured like a good meal if its life force was to be appreciated. Yet the doctor had become remorseless in driving things forward towards the ultimate goal of a complementary physical union.

Despite my growing worries about being able to maintain the pace she was setting in bed, I continued to enjoy the doctor’s company. As the shopping sprees went on each day, I delighted in her conversation. We discovered we had much in common, sharing an interest in art, books and cultural activities, not to mention good food and wine.

She also showed a sympathy for the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, having seen their plight at first hand during her brief stay in Israel.

Besides all this, there was the constantly unfolding panorama of Venice with its fascinating history – it had started to come into being soon after AD450, when fugitives from the invasions by the Germanic Lombard tribes from the north took refuge among an archipelago of about one hundred small islands in a lagoon on the Adriatic coast. Gradually the settlements achieved cohesion and an identity with a system of bridges and canals, and the population mushroomed. By the Middle Ages, Venice was established as a proudly independent city-state, governed by its Doge (the equivalent of a duke) and vastly influential as a maritime power.

Life in Venice revolved around the glorious Piazza Saint Marco, the symbol of the city for over one thousand years. The piazza was the beating heart of the city’s public life. It was a revelation for me to see it in all its phases, but especially when it was at its most colourful in the early morning light; or at dusk, when the mosaics of St Mark’s came to life and the adjoining buildings began to glow with a golden warmth.

I and the doctor spent many hours in the piazza, marvelling at its Byzantine splendour. As a romantic experience it was incomparable with anything else I had known. Venice entranced my vision and my senses. It had everything imaginable to offer. Through its historic link with the Ottomans, it fused Eastern craftsmanship with Western elegance. It was as if the two worlds intertwined to produce the best of each in a kaleidoscope of colour and design. No wonder those who had lived there and loved it called it La Serenissima. The whole city struck me as being like a vast, beautiful vessel afloat the often calm waters of the Adriatic.

It was a rich treasure, every facet of which, to my innocent eye, combined in a vibrancy of effect that I knew I would never be able to recapture.

A Woman a Week

A big hunt by police in Shanghai to find a female streaker who has so far evaded capture is ruffling feathers in the city and causing embarrassment in official quarters.

The phantom stripper is gaining notoriety by using the cover of darkness to pose nude at some of the city’s best known tourist spots.

Online photographs of the unrobed woman have been circulating for at least a week without being identified. The rumpus this display of nudity is creating can best be described as an amalgam of disgust and amusement among Chinese internet users.

City officials appear to be indifferent. The state-run Global Times announced last week that the police were investigating the nocturnal antics of the woman, whom it labelled ‘The Bum on the Bund’ – a reference to Shanghai’s historic waterfront district.

‘Though the woman’s face and private parts have been pixelated, it appears to be the same woman in all the photographs,’ the newspaper noted. The streaker’s late night escapades appear to have started on Hengshan Road, a busy thoroughfare in Shanghai’s former French Concession that is home to dozens of expat bars and the 1925 Community Church.

The photographs, which showed the woman reclining against one of the area’s unmistakeable London planes, were followed by raunchier shots taken near landmarks including the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Bund.

A lawyer’s view is that the woman could pay a high price for her ‘flirtatious and pornographic postures’ once apprehended. If found guilty of exposure in a public place, she would be likely to spend up to ten days in detention.

Instead of putting her in prison, I think she should be complimented on her initiative for giving Shanghai a taste of the city’s past glories – and in so doing bringing a flutter of harmless delight to those with more liberal views than the authorities, who take themselves much too seriously when confronting a trivial drollery.

For sheer entertainment value, I nominate this phantom streaker as my woman of the week. She obviously believes that her bodily assets are worth flaunting for the visual gratification of others. God bless her for her courage and generosity.

A Book for Christmas

Sleeping with Dogs is ‘the record of one man’s passionate affection for the dog, rooted in his early childhood and lasting undiminished into his dotage’.

These were for the most part dogs discarded and left to fate – tied to the railings of Kensington Gardens, found with a broken leg in the wilds of Turkey, adopted from an animal rescue home, passed on by the vet – but there was also a whippet of noble pedigree and three generations of a family of crossbreeds in which the whippet strain was strong. They were not pets, but indulged friends and companions, with all of whom he shared his bed, and who richly rewarded him with loyalty and love.

It is not a sentimental or determinedly anthropomorphic book – the dogs remain steadfastly dogs. It is observant and records the canine society of dog and dog as much as the relationship of man and dog. It is, at the same time, a deeply touching account of the lives and very different characters of seventeen dogs over eighty years or so, ranging from Jack Russell to Alsatian through half-boxer, half-pointer and half-karabaş, to purest indecipherable mongrel.

Brian Sewell, the author of this book, is a most remarkable human being. ‘Addicted to art, he has been the art critic of the Evening Standard since 1984, the sad end of a once promising career, the Orwell, Hawthornden and other prizes scant consolation to a man who once enjoyed life as a scholar gypsy.’

Those who love dogs cannot afford to be without this memorable gem of a book about the love of a man for his loyal and affectionate dogs, without whom he would find it much too hard and laborious to tolerate the trials and discomfort of old age.

Order your copy now and enjoy the delights of reading this moving tribute to the canine world which we take for granted.

Quartet Books has also published his two volumes of memoir – Outsider in 2011, and Outsider II in 2012 –to both critical and popular acclaim.

Volcano Under Snow

In the early 90s, I met John Colvin, a retired British Diplomat with postings in Oslo, Vienna, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi (where he was Consul General from 1965-71), Ulan Bator and Washington.

Already accredited with two books he came to see me with a proposition, to look at a manuscript he had written entitled The Lions of Judah, which Quartet then published.

We became friends and as a result he was responsible for nominating me to membership of the exclusive Beefsteak Club, which I’m glad to say was accepted.

One of my great heroes at the time was General Nguyen Giap who died last weekend at the age of 102. Who else, I thought, would chronicle his life better than John Colvin who seemed well-versed on the subject.

I quickly commissioned him to do a full-blown biography of Giap, considered by many to be the greatest military commander of the twentieth century. The birth of the book took place in 1996 under the appropriate title, Volcano Under Snow. 

Victorious in numerous battles against, successively, the Japanese, the French and the Americans, Giap became North Vietnam’s minister for defence and commander-in-chief. He worked with Ho Chi Minh to create the armies and support for under-equipped forces that would eventually triumph over the might of the USA with a crushing defeat of France at the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Japanese occupation lasted from 1944-45, during which time Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary League for Independent Vietnam became the most powerful force in the country. Despite pressure for independence, the victorious Allies of World War Two restored French control – thus beginning thirty years of war in Vietnam.

John Colvin’s biography describes the extraordinary single-mindedness with which Giap pursued victory. Giap knew that the North Vietnamese ability to sustain the war would eventually bring success. Colvin shows the enormous human cost as well as the magnificent dedication that this required. Colvin’s great knowledge of Vietnam and its people added a certain authenticity and strength to this biography, which provides a portrait of Giap’s military genius and a comprehensive history of the Vietnam wars.

The book, which is still available from Quartet at £25, is an important historical chronicle of one of the bloodiest battles to have been fought with unusual ferocity and without regard for the sanctity of human life.

Order your copy now before stocks run out.

Air-Miles Andy is At It Again

I must confess to an obsession.

There are two people who seem to get me in a state of frenzy whenever I see their name in print, which is rather more often than I can stomach. The first is Tony Blair who makes me cringe every time I read about him in his vulgar pursuit of wealth. His shameless hypocrisy about his political views, pretentious and unyielding in essence but worse still concealing a disdain for everything I believe in, makes me feel totally distraught.

The next on my list is Air-Miles Andy, who seems to have perfected the art of milking the system, without the elegance or the charm a royal in his position is normally imbued with. He strikes me as boorish, with a foul temper, and a vocabulary of the F-word which he regularly uses when provoked or not accorded his inflated views of how a royal should be treated.

The latest criticism he is facing is the result of his taking time off from an official tour part-funded by the public purse to visit Princess Eugenie in New York, taking her out to dinner as she starts a new job at an auction house.

He is in the city on the latest leg of a round-the-world tour that was not publicised in advance. Details have only emerged in Daily Court Circular notices issued by Buckingham Palace after the event.

The Duke had visited Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan before arriving in New York last Wednesday.

The first leg of his trip was funded entirely by the taxpayer. Since he left Indonesia, his expenses and those of his personal staff have been paid partly by the Duke and partly by the Royal United Services Institute, which he has been representing, while the cost of his Scotland Yard bodyguards is taxpayer-funded at all times.

The golf-loving Duke has fitted plenty of spare time into his schedule. Between 18th and 29th September he carried out engagements on four days in Vietnam and Indonesia and had eight days of ‘private time’. Buckingham Palace refused to say what he was doing on his days off.

The Labour MP Paul Flynn said: ‘It seems extraordinary that Prince Andrew is still allowed to plunder the public coffers. If he is on a trip visiting his family, obviously he should pay the full cost of that himself, including security.’

Matthew Sinclair, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: ‘Taxpayers will wonder why they are paying for the Prince’s gallivanting across the globe, given that he’s no longer a UK trade envoy. Even if part of the journey is privately funded, the timing of it is sure to raise eyebrows. With all the necessary protection costs paid for by the taxpayers it’s time Prince Andrew reduced the bill for his travelling.’

In his latest tour, he will have travelled 21,625 miles in less than three weeks when he returns.

It is preposterous that neither the government nor those who sanction such trips are unaware of the harm that extravagance of this nature will do to the image of the royals in general. Prince Andrew’s popularity is at its lowest ebb and, unless something is done about it soon, he will suffer the indignation of the nation with its subsequent reflux.

Having said all that, and having poured out my invectives, the wiser course for me to adopt now is simply to pipe down and forget about Blair and Prince Andrew.

But on reflection, who in his right mind will attribute such wisdom to me since I can be as incorrigible as the worst among us.

The Crazy World of Politics

Who says politics is not the domain of the crackpots and the unprincipled?

A Conservative minister who once called the Speaker of the House of Commons a ‘stupid, sanctimonious dwarf’ has announced that he wants to be his deputy. To start with, what a rocky foundation in which to build a serious working relationship. But such things are common in politics where enemies become so-called friends when expediency calls and previous bickerings turn into amiability for the very same reason.

Simon Burns is stepping down after three years as a minister to attempt to become Deputy Speaker. He will run against Nadine Dorries, the rebellious Tory MP who took part in I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and whose relationship with the Tory hierarchy has suffered major reversals ever since.

Mr Burns has made no secret of his loathing for John Bercow, the Speaker, and was one of the few MPs to refuse to shake his hand when he took the Oath.

In June 2010, Mr Burns was reprimanded by the Speaker after turning to answer a question from a Liberal Democrat MP. When several Labour MPs shouted that they could not hear, Mr Bercow said: ‘I have just had members complaining that they can’t hear. You must face the House – it’s a very simple point, I have made it to others and they have understood it.’ Mr Burns retorted by mouthing the words  ‘stupid, sanctimonious dwarf’ to Mr Bercow who is five foot six inches. He was later forced to make an unreserved apology.

Mr Burns was widely expected to be one of the losers in the forthcoming government reshuffle. He was the target of ridicule as railway minister, for using a chauffeur-driven car to travel the thirty-five miles from his home in Essex to London, rather than travelling by train. Use of the car cost £80,000 a year. He later recanted and joined rail commuters in order to limit the damage to his reputation, but was caught taking a government limousine to work again in July.

However, his decision to stand as Deputy Speaker will be welcomed by Tory MPs who have clashed repeatedly with Mr Bercow in the Commons. Nigel Evans resigned from the role, charged with sex-offences against seven men.

David Cameron welcomed Mr Burns’ decision to run, and thanked him for the loyalty and support he has always given him and to the party.

Ms Dorries said: ‘I’m going to stand. I have a proven track record of achievement in Parliament.’

There are two other candidates for the post. The vote, which will be open to all MPs, is likely to take place in ten days’ time.

There you have it. Politics and Politicians are a breed of their own. They operate solely to gain power and spend a great deal of their time trying to maintain it. Principles are for the faint-hearted and unless you do away with them, you risk failure on a grand scale. For in today’s complex world where money is the new divinity, the means matter less as the outcome matters most.

The Realignment of the Sexes

It seems that the needs of men have prompted a new wave of priorities with French magazine publishers who are now waging a war for the affections of men.

They must believe that a rich, untapped market awaits them in earnest.

Elle, the magazine that has come to define chic French femininity, has brought out a version for men in a move being hailed by some as a landmark in male liberation.

Franck Espiasse-Cabau, publisher of Elle, said that ‘the women’s glossy magazine had four hundred thousand male readers, many of whom looked at it over their wives’ shoulders. This showed that the macho Gallic male has thrown off the shackles of oppression and was ready for Elle Man. Men were limited to cars and sport. Now they have got rid of their hang-ups, and they are interested in beauty, fashion, style and haute couture’.

The first edition of Elle Man, which will eventually be bi-monthly, features a style guide that includes advice on hair wax, bracelets and skin care.

Edouard Dutour, the editor of Elle Man, said that the typical reader would be ‘a man who dares to have recreational sex, has the insolence to party, knows that love is a threesome (a couple and a smartphone), goes into his kitchen as though it was a religious place, listens to American rap and discovers a Colombian novel’.

What an outrageous description of his potential reader! The editor must be a man of many parts: visionary, poet, a sexual therapist, and endowed with a rare talent of a fruitcake or a genius.

On the other side of the scale, the seventies soft pornography magazine Lui has re-launched with a thoroughly reconstructed appeal to the man’s man; the delectable English model Georgia May Jagger, in knickers and little else, graces the latest edition.

For the past forty years Lui has dominated the men’s magazine market, offering an unabashed trip to France’s carefree, post-war period before the advent of the dreadfully ill-conceived political correctness.

‘Lui is my last attempt at remaining vaguely masculine, surrounded by naked women on glossy pages,’ wrote editor Frederic Beigbeder, an author and self-styled hedonist. ‘It’s a gallant last stand in memory of this dinosaur, known as the guy – the one who flirted heavily, drunk too much, drove fast, fell in love while talking loudly about politics and waving his little muscular arms about.’

The French have an uncanny way of expressing their most colourful vision by presenting it through well-chosen words in a picturesque dimension that reflects their dreams. A measure of optimism with a poetic licence goes a long way to achieving sometimes what appears to be an unattainable objective.

The release of the two glossies comes after a summer of anxious debate over the state of French manhood, summed up by the author Guillaume Chérel in his book Les hommes sont des maîtresses comme les autres, in which he talks candidly and without reserve about being ‘used’ by his lover. Le Figaro‘s comment was spot on, asking: ‘Are men losing their power in the matter of love?’ 

My own view is that they are. The liberation of women and the advent of political correctness have robbed both sexes of the love initiative that was once part and parcel of the love game. The difference between the sexes has practically vanished. What remains is the physical difference, which again is becoming too close for comfort.

I mourn the days past, when a woman was considered a goddess – to be pampered and admired in equal measure – complementary qualities were the key to a happy and contented life, and where competitiveness in the bedroom was never an issue.

Despite our evolution in most things, the good old days have their merit.

A Woman a Week

One of my favourite literary men was the late Sir Harold Acton who was born in 1904, educated at Eton and Christ Church Oxford.

He enjoyed a long friendship with Evelyn Waugh and was a fond admirer of Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein. A British writer, scholar and dilettante – perhaps most famous for being wrongly believed to have inspired the character of Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). Waugh himself wrote, ‘The characters in my novels often wrongly identified with Harold Acton were to a great extent drawn from Brian Howard.’ That being said, we must also note that in a letter to Lord Baldwin an elucidating Waugh reveals: ‘There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names – that was 2/3 Brian Howard and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man than Howard.’

It would seem that Waugh like many other writers peopled his novels with composite characters based on individuals he personally knew, and that while neither Howard nor Acton can be totally identified on a one-to-one basis with any particular character, neither can claim their influence, in large part or small measure, to be completely ignored.

In 1932 Harold Acton took up residence in Peking, which he found congenial. He studied Chinese language, traditional drama, poetry and lectured in English at the National University. He became a devotee of Chinese classical theatre and lived there until 1939.

In 1989, I was introduced to Harold by Lord Lambton who was living then in Siena. In no time at all, I formed a close friendship with Harold and was regularly invited to dine with him at La Pietra, his magnificent renaissance palazzo with its beautiful gardens overlooking Florence.

Villa La Pietra Stefano Marinaz Florence

As a result I interviewed him for my book Singular Encounters, published in 1990.

Have you ever been a romantic? I asked.

I’ve been an admirer of Schiller, of the romantics, and so on. I think we’ve all gone through a romantic phase, particularly in youth.

Did you ever fall in love?

Oh, yes, I think we all did, but I suppose I haven’t got the depth of character to fall desperately in love, like so many of my friends. No, I never had that. I suppose I must be a cold blooded fish, really – more mental than physical. 

Certainly it occurred to me to marry. I was proposed to many times, but I lived in China then and it would have been very inconvenient. I liked to be an independent bachelor in Peking, having my choice of friends and of girlfriends. I preferred my freedom. I’m happy now. I’m an old bachelor, but I don’t suffer from solitude. I sometimes regret that I never chose such and such a person, but I have many particularly good friends here. 

I spent a long time with a Chinese woman, which was a very happy time, except when I had to leave, of course, but you couldn’t continue forever. It was a rewarding relationship. The Chinese have such an exquisite old civilisation and Chinese women have a wonderful instinct for affection. They’re warm hearted, and I like their figures: very graceful and unhairy. I don’t like a lot of hair, so they appealed to me. If I had married I would have married a Chinese. So I was living with a Chinese girl for many years, and happily because I was never disturbed; no scenes, no jealousy, nothing of that sort.  They have another tempo. With an Italian woman it would be a series of scenes and life would become impossible. I know, because I have so many Italian friends. 

When the interview appeared in print, the press was astounded to hear that Harold, long considered to be gay, had some sort of a physical relationship with at least one Chinese woman. When I pressed him further on the subject he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. I then graciously dropped the subject which elicited a sweet smile from him.

Harold told me a lot about China, which intrigued me more than ever before, having avidly read all the work of Pearl S. Buck during my teens.

For this reason, and as a tribute to a great man, I would like to dedicate my Woman of the Week – who happens to be Chinese – to his memory.

Liu Wen’s arrival in a top ten list of the highest paid supermodels can only reflect the extent of the growth in Chinese luxury purchasing power.

Forbes’ 2013 list, published recently, featured two new names that illustrate how rapidly markets in China and the Far East are making their impact on magazines, campaigns and catwalks more ethnically diverse than at any time before.

The addition of Chinese supermodel Liu Wen has risen from an unknown teenager to become the fifth highest-earning model in the world thanks to campaigns with Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss.

It is the first time an Asian model has appeared in the annual Forbes list – but then Liu Wen is used to firsts. The twenty-five-year-old was the first Asian model hired as a face of Estee Lauder and the first hired as a Victoria’s Secret Angel.

Born 27th January 1988 in Yongzhou, Hunan, Liu is an only child. In her teens, her mother encouraged her to be professional, to eat well and to enter the modelling contest that led to Liu’s discovery.

In September 2007, Liu caught the attention of the international fashion industry when she shot an editorial in clothes designed by Karl Lagerfeld and Viktor & Rolf and would later walk for both of those brands.

She was invited to Paris in 2008 to sign with an agency and participate in Paris Fashion Week. She’s never looked back since.

As these pictures clearly show, she has a contagious freshness and the silky kind of complexion that Harold Acton described to me about Chinese women during our many pleasurable encounters. One can easily fall in love with such a sublime creature. The gods must have smiled when they sent her to earth as their charm-offensive delegate to enchant us all.

Hence, my woman of the week is certainly well-fitted to the task.

The Island where Nature and Sex Blend

In 1951 on a visit to the south of France with a school friend, a bus which we took eastward along the coast dropped us at the town of Le Lavandou.

As we paused there, we heard about a nudist colony called Heliopolis on the Île du Levant, which lay a few miles offshore out in the Mediterranean. It seemed to us that this might provide another intriguing diversion. The island was in part taken up by the naturist enclave, while the rest was given over to some government agency for experimental purposes to do with the military.

The Île du Levant was accessible by regular ferry service, but it was too late to catch a boat that day. Rather than spend our dwindling resources on a hotel we decided to sleep out on the beach. The night was long and the air became chilled. We could hardly wait to see the sun rise and feel its warmth.

The first ferry next morning carried us to the island, where the inhabitants of the small port town earned a living by catering for the needs of the many visitors who came to the island from far and wide in search of nature and the natural in every sense. Even the shop assistants served the customers naked, except for a fig leaf to cover their private parts. At first I and my friend found it a bizarre experience to go into a bakery and see a woman dangling her breasts among the freshly baked loaves she was handling. Did the bread taste better as a result, we wondered.

As the initial weirdness of the experience began to wear off, we made our way to the top of a mountain where there was a youth hostel and encampment. Here various formalities had to be gone through including the need to register ourselves as youth members of the cult of naturalism. Then we were each allocated a place in one of the tents and requested to go about naked like everyone else.

Nervously we removed our clothing and braced ourselves to face the ordeal of making a grand entrance at the main compound where the community gathered. It was only to be expected that we would briefly become the focus of attention. For one thing, a new merchandise always attracts until the novelty wears off; for another, our bodies were white in contrast to the glowing browns of those whose skin had been exposed to the sun’s rays for a long period. There was also no escaping the curiosity humans always feel for seeing those parts of other people’s bodies that are normally concealed. As soon as the assembled company had had their fill, I and my friend blended into the landscape.

The youth club which we had joined consisted of dedicated followers of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. I was very familiar with his work and considered myself a faithful disciple. Existentialism had an exciting appeal for young people in those days with its emphasis on man’s needing to define his place in the world  in which he found himself by drawing on his own mental resources and his own human experience, God (or the idea of God) having departed the scene. Among Sartre’s writings I had read the novels La Nausée and the trilogy Les Chemins de la Liberté, as well as some of the plays – notably Les Mouches and La Putain Respectueuse. I therefore felt completely at home in the intellectual ethos of the youth camp, while other aspects of the collective experience needed a degree of adjustment.

There were no showers or running water. The only toilet facilities were communal and consisted of a large hole in the ground in the woods. It was the ultimate exercise in social levelling. You would be squatting to relieve yourself over the hole when somebody else came and squatted next to you to do the same. Their presence had an inhibiting effect on the uninitiated through embarrassment. The anal sphincter would tighten and the natural function seize.

The main diet in camp was bread and cheese washed down with quantities of cheap wine. We also brought fruit, vegetables and tinned sardines at the shop. We could not afford sun-tan lotion so to protect our skin we used olive oil, which had some rather unfortunate results.

There were times in the evenings, after everyone had eaten and before merriment took over, when the general talk turned into animated discussions and heated arguments of existentialism; what it stood for and its various interpretations. At such moments the atmosphere began to sizzle with intellectual fervour.

The shedding of inhibitions and exposing of the body in nakedness became all of a piece with the bearing of the soul. It was an invigorating experience that I recognised as a unique coming together of circumstances, time and place. I drank in every part of it eagerly; I would never encounter anything like it again.

As the arguments petered out, the desire for entertainment took over. Musical talents came to the fore and there was a lot of dancing before the day’s activities were rounded off with game sessions. One notable contest involved two people sitting opposite each other astride a wobbly bench, their feet not touching the ground. While each of them used one hand to ward off blows to their own head, with the other they dealt blows about the other’s head with enough force to make them topple off. Whoever remained on their perch at the end of the contest was declared the winner. Late at night the mistral started to blow down the Rhône Valley and the tents in which the revellers slept began to sway as if keeping time with the wind. The camp beds inside the tents were arranged almost touching because of the limitations on space and there was no segregation of the sexes.

The whole business of nakedness had made us apprehensive about how our own bodies would respond to seeing naked women all around us. Could we resist getting erections? If we failed to repress the urge, would we find ourselves the embarrassed subjects of mocking hilarity among our comrades? The odd thing was that with so much flesh on show in such a natural, matter-of-fact way, the erotic mystery seemed to vanish. During the day we spent our time on the beach where the whole colony gathered in the burning sun. There we saw all sizes and shapes of naked bodies – some were young, some old, some very old. We witnessed the beauty of the human form alongside the ugly and grotesque. The widely diverse sunbathers presented a living frieze that included the gorgeous and the repellent. Some private parts in either sex could be threatening or disturbing to look at; others were more benign.

In the final analysis allure and revulsion walked hand in hand, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. We could hardly have had a better demonstration of the fact, as we took the lesson on board. It was forbidden to photograph any of the naked women but that did not prevent us trying it on surreptitiously. The only occasion on which cameras were openly allowed was the evening of the Nude Miss Île du Levant contest, when the gorgeous winner could be photographed naked.

The week we spent on the Île du Levant was an adventure we could not have forgone. Nakedness does not in itself allow sexual desire; there are times when it discourages it. The libido is stimulated by mysterious impulses that spring from a longing to unravel something tantalisingly hidden. Some of the women we had seen were stunningly attractive yet we had felt no physical response. It only went to prove that it was concealment that strengthened desire through the power of imagination.

The point was illustrated after we had arrived in Hyères and were making our way along a rather windy quayside. A gust of breeze caught the skirt of a curvaceous young woman who happened to be walking on the seafront. The glimpse we had of her knickers was enough to make my blood and that of my friend tingle with excitement.

We were back in the real world.