Starry Skies, Chapter 3: Dinner With Harry

While all this was going on, I continued to exchange messages with Harry, who little realised that while I was conscientiously and respectfully staying out of his room, I was attending church in the room of his Russian competitor and business rival, and being educated in the life and psychology of the camwhore. Consequently, I was not very surprised when he expressed an interest in having dinner with me, with a view to dating each other, yet found himself too terrified to talk to me beforehand by picking up the phone. 

Despite my new knowledge, it nonetheless struck me as slightly remarkable when he confessed, a couple of hours before our date, that he was very afraid to see me in case there was a repulsive and horrifying discrepancy between his ‘carefully curated photos’, as he put it, and his real, three-dimensional self. I was kind and gentle. I explained to him that I was talking to him despite his good looks and not because of them. I explained that he was holding my attention because of his obvious intelligence, academic ability, courtesy and self-effacing manner. He was very touched by this and said “thank you for your kind words”. I did not mention that the reason I was not attaching a lot of value to his physical appearance was because I had been blinded by his Russian counterpart, and everything that was not this holy Russian saint was cut from the same, everyday cloth.

Thus reassured, the shy, retiring little British porn star came out to meet me at a very nice Swiss restaurant in Soho. I was already seated when he arrived, five minutes late and full of apologies. He was a polite, sensitive little sweetheart, just as he was in his text messages. I quickly complimented him on his appearance, told him “you are much more attractive in real life than in your photos”, which was true, and he visibly heaved a sigh of relief. This, from a boy who has been taking his clothes off, for hundreds of gay men, almost daily, for two or three years.

We ate dinner and talked. We talked about my work and about his, using coded language so as not to upset the other diners. He was clever, sweet, funny, engaging. At one point he broke eye contact and turned his face away, looking at the ground. “You saw my photos”, he said, small pink roses of shame blooming in his cheeks. I did see his photos, because he gave me the link to his Tumblr, and what’s more, I Google Image searched him. Doing this caused me to see certain things that I wish I could unsee, because no nice, precious, valuable young boy or girl should be on the internet doing the things I saw in those pictures. His poor mother would have died. I don’t think he can have Google Image searched himself, otherwise those pink roses of shame would have been scarlet.

Anyway, despite all this anxiety and blushing, he managed to have a lovely time in my company, as one would hope. He very much enjoyed himself and we struck up quite a rapport. By the end of the evening he was almost jubilant and we had made plans to go to the opera and even go on holiday together in due course. We kissed at the tube station – as a 24-year-old sex worker who sells himself to his most loyal fans in a range of ways that I am not going to ask about, he proved quite capable of being kissed – and it seemed that a Dating Relationship had been formed. And so it came to pass that I found myself on my favourite dating app, suspending my account. In that small window of time, in a space of perhaps two minutes, between coming online and disappearing from public view, I received a message. A message from a French man who was about to say shocking things to me, henceforth known as Maxime.

**To Be Continued**

The Magic Flute

OMG. That was possibly the best thing I have EVER seen.

OK, so I am an opera aficionado now. I have been to many official, impressive and very expensive venues such as the English National Opera and the Royal Opera House to see world-class performances. Everything has been magnificent. The singing, the orchestras, the set design, everything. It’s all been the very pinnacle of refined culture.

Today, I went to see Mozart’s Magic Flute, an opera I knew nothing about. I went to see it at the King’s Head Theatre, a theatre that I had never heard of.

OMG. It was AWESOME. I was BLOWN AWAY.

First, the theatre. When they say ‘theatre’, what they mean is ‘back room of a pub in Islington’.

Pub exterior. A typical London pub.

kings head ext

Inside the pub.

kings head interior

Where’s the theatre? Oh, it must be back here.

kings head entrance

It is a miniature theatre! It is amazing! It seats maybe 120 people, at full capacity. It is a real theatre, it has proper lighting and everything, but is tiny. 120 people might sound like quite a few, but let’s take into account that the Royal Opera House seats 2,500 people and that means you are going to pay £200 to sit approximately 8 miles away from the stage. At the King’s Head Theatre, you pay £30 and you have actual Mozart performed by people who are less than three feet away. It was absolutely unbelievable. It was like having a private performance. The Magic Flute was performed in the round, which is to say, in the middle of the room, with the audience no more than four rows deep around the perimeter. Here’s a cheeky photo that I took during the interval so you can see the tiny scale of the place. I’m sitting at one end of the room, facing the scenery on the back wall, and then there are more seats and audience members to the left and right. As you can see, one is basically on the stage with the performers.

magic flute stage

The Magic Flute is a fantastical tale set in “a distant land”, according to Wikipedia. The highly imaginative Charles Court Opera production that I saw today transplanted the action to a South American jungle. Mozart wrote it for a full orchestra, with the original libretto in German; today’s slightly abridged production was sung in English with the accompaniment of a single piano. Mozart intended it to be a comic opera – if you’ve ever seen any opera you’ll know that the comedy element can be a little bit elusive. There were no such problems here. The Charles Court version of The Magic Flute that I saw today was hysterical. I absolutely laughed my head off. It has hand puppets! It has singing birds and snakes! It has the most glorious, over the top costumes! It has hammy acting and joyfully camp dancing! It was by far the most fun of any opera that I’ve ever seen and indeed the best time I’ve ever had at the theatre in my adult life. I split my sides laughing. I clapped my hands over my mouth because I couldn’t bear the moments of suspense. It was a riot. I didn’t know opera could be like that.

If you are within reach of London, you really must go, I cannot say enough good things about it. I have already raved about it to a bunch of people and persuaded them to buy tickets immediately.

Links.

Charles Court Opera: The Magic Flute

A review of this same, fabulous production when it first appeared in 2016.

Go here to buy tickets: Kings Head Theatre

The show is on until 3 June.

Here is a larger, more traditional and serious production that was at the Royal Opera House in London in 2003, with a full orchestra and everything. I will go and see this type of version of The Magic Flute at some time, but nothing will ever take away from my first experience of that intimate production in that tiny little place. It was magical. Mozart would have approved.

Jewels

I may not be able to retire, but no-one can say I didn’t go out and enjoy London.

I was at the Royal Opera House again tonight, for the second time this week.

roh3

roh2

It was ballet this evening, I felt extremely fortunate to see George Balanchine’s Jewels, which is now 50 years old, just like me (sigh).

Here’s the official trailer for the version I saw tonight.

It goes without saying that the dancing was amazing, this is the Royal Ballet, they are world famous.

Thanks to my mother I saw many 19th century classical and romantic ballets when I was a kid. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle, Coppelia, La Fille Mal Gardee. It was a treat for a little girl. The last time I saw a ballet performed could have been 30 years ago. So it was a very interesting experience going to this 1960s ballet (in fact, 1967) as a mature adult.

Jewels is an abstract ballet in three acts; there is no story-telling. It is divided into three sections: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Dancers, performing solo or in groups as large as 35, are elegantly arranged on the stage in geometric configurations. The effect, especially in their sparkly and bejewelled costumes, is kaleidoscopic. Each dancer is a jewel and they form chains and make squares and triangles on the stage. Music by Fauré (emeralds), Stravinsky (rubies) and Tchaikovsky (diamonds).

I also want to remark on the set design, which is gloriously 1960s. There are ostentatious chandeliers and pillars that make the stage look like a grand American hotel.

Royal Ballet dancers and members of the creative team who worked on this 2017 production discuss why it is a special ballet.

See the whole thing in this Russian production broadcast by Euro Arts Channel:

Madama Butterfly

The Classical Music, Yo season continues on TLYW. Last night I went to see Madam Butterfly at the Royal Opera House. It was one of the best things I’ve ever been to. Here’s the official trailer.

When I see opera (I love that this is a phrase that I use now), I want to be able to follow the story. This is a tragic opera about unrequited love, the story is simple and it only has about half a dozen characters.

Madam Butterfly is a beautiful, captivating young girl. She lives in Japan. She is temporarily ‘married’ to a handsome American, with whom she is in love. She takes the wedding and the marriage very seriously and calls herself Mrs Pinkerton. What she does not realise is that he is just taking advantage of a loose legal arrangement that allows him to enjoy the comforts of a temporary wife for a time until he feels like abandoning the relationship. So that’s what he does. He lives with her for a short time, gets her pregnant, then makes his excuses and disappears back to America. She waits a long time for him to return, believing that she is legitimately his wife and he will come home to her. When he eventually reappears in Japan with his new American wife in tow, he is too ashamed to even speak to her, steals her child, who she will not be able to support on her own, and leaves her to commit suicide.

As if that were not heart-rending enough, there was a real Miss Butterfly. The opera, written in 1903, is based on a play, which was based on a story, which was based on real events, described in this extract from the programme:

butterfly storybutterfly rain

Discussion by the Royal Opera House concerning why it is such a powerful opera:

The music – this is 19th century Orientalism. Puccini was Italian but was very fascinated by The Orient, as it was then known, as were many people of his generation, including writers of other operas (e.g., The Mikado). He’s very interested in creating a Japanese atmosphere and incorporates tunes from Japanese music boxes and other Japanese motifs into the context of an opera with an Italian framework and flavour.

There’s a rather nice French film version here, from 1995, with a handsome Mr Pinkerton and delicate Miss Butterfly.

Future Sex: a book review.

Witt, Emily. (2017) Future Sex: A new kind of free love. Faber & Faber.

While I was stuck on the hospital ward, I at least had time to do some reading. I read a new book by Emily Witt, about sex. Not just any sex, but specifically sex post-2010, in the developed, affluent world, mainly North America (although several Europeans make an appearance). It is a very specific time and place. I’m British and I was young in the 1990s but that was a long time ago. Young people in the 1990s took risky, unmeasured doses of dirtily-manufactured MDMA, danced in raves in warehouses, smoked cigarettes and were substantially unemployed. We weren’t hippies. We didn’t have values, either conformist or anti-conformist. We didn’t think of ourselves as pioneers,  no-one was vegan, the internet had barely penetrated people’s homes, cellphones were like house bricks and all you could do with the brick was place calls. It wouldn’t manage your diary, photograph your soy latte or broadcast every passing thought or experience to your social network, which was okay, because you didn’t have a social network. People still wore stonewashed jeans and those who had bricks used them to ring each other up on their ‘land lines’. A land line is like a cellphone that is structurally built into your house. If they didn’t pick up the phone, they were ‘out’ and you couldn’t talk to them.

Sex in the 1990s was okay. It was not bad. Of course there was the spectre of HIV which showed up in the 1980s to put a stop to the parties that our moms and dads were having in the 60s and 70s. You hardly saw any porn because there was hardly any internet. I kind of think that might have been a good thing. People had sex without reference to what it would have looked like on camera. Also, there was time to have sex because people were unemployed. I passed many a happy afternoon, having sex with one (or two or even three) of my friends in a tiny, rented house or untidy bedsit, and as for relationships, if you wanted a boyfriend or girlfriend, you just had sex with one of your friends regularly until you moved in together. We were quite anti-marriage, which we inherited from our rule-defying parents, until, two by two, we got married, with a slight sense of having caved in.

Emily Witt’s book is not about this era. It is about a much later cohort of people who are in their 20s now. I take care to describe the sex and dating culture of the 1990s to you so that you can appreciate how very different things are for the young people she describes today. For a start, they are not unemployed. They work at Google and Facebook. They put in working weeks of 60 and 70 hours and they have those jobs because they put in long hours before that, when they were at school and college. They are clean, healthy and well-groomed. They don’t smoke. Their employers provide clean, well-lit organic juice bars and 20 varieties of water. Lots of people are vegans. They occasionally take drugs but only very clean, carefully-measured drugs on carefully-planned occasions, such as the Burning Man festival, where corporate lawyers go to feel wholesome and holistic. They eat a careful, clean diet. They are obedient rule-followers and very conservative compared to previous generations. They look at the behaviour of those who went before and they see that extreme and risky actions are sometimes liberating but sometimes exact heavy costs. Drug casualties. Unwanted pregnancies. Single parenthood. Abandonment of each other. Poverty. Violence. They regard these costs and they make prudent decisions to have careful fun.

And, of course, they have smartphones and the internet and that has changed everything, including sex and relationships. In this respect, they are pioneers and they are well aware of it. So what are they doing? If they’re not having small, untheatrical and unplanned episodes of sex in the middle of the afternoon in a scruffy bedsit, what are they doing?

  • Internet dating. Tinder. OKCupid. We need to be clear about what ‘dating’ means, which is to say, we need to acknowledge its ambiguity and huge scope. You can have sex delivered to your house within the hour, after a short interaction with the apps on your smartphone; it is like a bolt-on for Uber. You could do that every night of the week and have relatively clean, disease-free sex with one earnest, fresh-faced Millennial after another, and that would be ‘dating’. At the other end of the scale, you could be living with someone for years in a monogamous relationship and that would also be ‘dating’. Dating means any kind of sexual or romantic aspect of your life that involves a live human and isn’t marriage. Because ‘dating’ has no precise meaning any more, it’s incredibly difficult to tell whether you are ‘dating’ someone or whether you just haven’t quite finished fucking each other yet. This describes basically every relationship I’ve had since 2010, just because I live in London, a city that plays by the same rules as San Francisco and has a disproportionately young and affluent population.
  • Orgasmic meditation. Yeah, this is a thing, we have this in London too. If you are a woman, and that is mainly who it is for, it means earnestly going to an established venue and being gently masturbated for precisely 15 minutes by a man who doesn’t expect you to touch him or suck his cock in return. You might do this in private or in a room full of people who are doing the same thing. You might have an orgasm and you might not. What matters is the meditation aspect. Afterwards, you will feel ‘grounded’. It is a visibly feminist project, but no-one will use the word feminist.
  • Internet porn. Okay, back in the 90s, before the internet was really a thing, if  you wanted to look at porn, you had to go to a ‘sex shop’, which was a bricks-and-mortar store, sneak inside, hoping that no-one was looking, and purchase an item from a range of about 10 magazines or possibly VHS video tapes. The female performers were often being coerced in one way or another and the action usually revolved around blow jobs and pretend lesbianism. Not surprisingly, feminists didn’t like it. They saw it as economic and bodily oppression of women, which it was. Now, porn is something different. You obviously don’t go to a shop, you go to a website. You will select a handful of hashtags, from a range of a few hundred, to specify exactly what kind of porn you want to see. If you want to see a woman being gangbanged by a posse of pandas (yes, really), it is there. It will most likely be delivered to you as a short video clip of 2-10 minutes for you to watch on your iPad. If it was professionally shot, it might have been a female director. It is no longer safe to assume that the female performers are being forced to do whatever it is, no matter how violent. If it is professional, the actors probably have clean HIV certificates and contracts of employment. If it is amateur, you’re looking at most porn. Speaking of which …
  • Camming. To cam. To affix a high-definition camera to your laptop. To open the laptop and turn on the camera in some convenient location such as your bedroom. To broadcast the view of you in your bedroom into a web-based chat room. To perform the sexual acts of your choice for an audience of up to several thousand people while they use the chat software to type in special requests, which you may or may not grant, and to give you money. Tips. Internet currency, which converts into real money. It’s possible to earn a living this way and for most performers it pays about the same as working in Starbucks, with less effort and fewer hours. I met someone just the other day who does this as his full time job. He is 24 and has a degree in maths. He has been camming full time for three years, ever since leaving university. Where did I meet him, you ask. I met him on OKCupid where we talked about whether we should date, see Dating, above. Camming is his job. I have my job and he has his. I have not viewed the professional performances of this particular boy, out of some misguided, old-person respect for his privacy, but I viewed the performance of another boy, in the name of research. He was about the same age and he took the underwear off his gym-sculpted body very, very slowly for an hour while people threw money at him. He had 32,000 followers just on that one social media platform, which was not his only one. I’m a highly skilled marketing executive and I do not have 32,000 followers across all social media platforms combined.

These are the times we live in and the cities we live in. When I started internet dating it came as a surprise to me that all these 24 and 25 year olds, with muscular, waxed, tanned and polished bodies that 15 years ago could only have been viewed in the pages of men’s fitness magazines, were even interested in me. Why would they be interested in me? I’m middle-aged and yes I am attractive, but still. I’m old. Then gradually I learned what is going down. If you are attractive, they don’t care how old you are. More to the point, my attractiveness is far less important than whether my attention makes them feel attractive. If you eat a vegan, carb-free, organic, locally-sourced diet and you are in the gym 7 days a week, without even once failing to show up to lift weights and fine-tune your abs, you want praise. And praise is something I am happy to deliver, it seems like a good deal.

Because of the ambiguity of ‘dating’, where few people can tell whether or not they are ‘in a relationship’ with each other, I occasionally think that I should attempt to date people my own age. The rules of the game might be a bit clearer. So I keep an account on another dating site that is mainly populated by London’s middle-aged intelligentsia. Left-leaning, opera-liking, middle-aged, middle-class men who are the same age as me. And what I see there is a generation of men that has been left behind. These men, they were not raised to think that they should be in the gym 7 days/week, they think they are doing well if they’ve had a haircut. They are strangers to Botox. Unlike women my age who have kept up with every hot yoga and soy latte health trend, they look exactly as old as they are. Indeed, now that everyone else is carefully and artificially young and beautiful, they look much older than they are. A man of 50 is effectively indistinguishable from a man of 70. They are afraid of ‘dating’ and do not understand it. One of them messaged me today, asking if I would like to go out. His profile lacked a photo, which in 2017 is like failing to exist. I only responded because I sometimes like to poke the crazy.

Him: Oh hello. Would you like to go out? I enjoy pubs and going to concerts, blah blah. Now that I’ve clicked ‘like’ on your profile, you will be able to see my photo. (I looked. He was 49 and looked 70. That’s what you get for going to the pub.)

Me: For what reason is your photo behind a wall?

Him: Well, you could have said hello first. I kept my photo hidden because I am new to this internet dating thing and I am shy about putting it all out there.

And that’s when the small amount of fun to be had from goading him ran out and I went back to sending Whatsapp messages to the 23-year-old, gym-sculpted model that I’ve been vaguely ‘dating’ for the last couple of months.

So that’s Future Sex. If you live in a city and you are having sex or wish you were having sex,  you should read it. You are welcome.

witt

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932

I went to see the Russian Art exhibition that is on at the Royal Academy.

It’s quite a large exhibition. It describes a fifteen-year period following the Russian Revolution when artists working in many different media (painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics), representing various different schools, including a new avant-garde movement, made art for a new Russia. A post-revolutionary Russia where the old, imperialist ideas and religion were dispensed with in favour of industry, collectivism and the state. Interestingly, it seems that Stalin took art much more seriously than Lenin. He knew that, under his reign of terror, he could make individual artists disappear if they said counter-revolutionary things, but he could not reduce the impact of their work. And that is why Stalin eventually decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable art form and the avant-garde was suppressed.

I was very interested indeed to see the painted cups and plates. An Imperial Porcelain Factory was founded in St Petersburg in 1744. For 150 years it produced ceramics of the highest quality which were hand-painted. These items were for the use of the monarchy and the imperial court. After the revolution the factory was seized and renamed the State Porcelain Factory and artists began to paint the plates and cups with propaganda images that would suit the new regime.

I was particularly taken with this plate, painted by Mikhail Adamovich in 1924. It shows Lenin’s mausoleum (Lenin died in 1924 which is when Stalin took over). I had never seen ceramics painted in that style before. It uses enamel paint and gilding. The exhibition features quite a lot of these ceramics and now I want to get some plain, white plates and paint them.

adamovich plate

A section of the exhibition focuses on Symbolism, a romantic and idealistic style of painting that was left over from the 19th century and threatened by the new Soviet politics. It regularly focused on religious subjects and argued for the preservation of churches and the Christian faith. While I personally disapprove of Christianity, there is no denying the beauty of Russian Symbolist paintings.

Mikhail Nesterov, Philosophers, 1917 (the philosophers are Russian orthodox theologians Pavel Florensky, in white, and Sergei Bulgakov, in black).

Nesterov philosophers

Konstantin Yuon, The Day of Annunciation, 1922

yuon annunciation

Finally, a little sport. Both these paintings are by Alexander Samokhvalov, 1932 (Girl in a Football Jersey, right) and 1933 (Sportswoman with a Shot-put, left). Before the revolution, sport was for wealthy, leisured men. After the revolution, efforts were made to extend sport to everyone, especially women. Physical education of the young was regarded as very important for producing fit and healthy Communist citizens and future soldiers.

samokhvalolv

Annual sports parades were held in Moscow’s Red Square during this period. Here’s a video of one such parade in the 1930s. The film is edited so that Stalin regularly appears, looking approving.

The exhibition continues until 17 April.

Marc Almond

I ticked another item off the bucket list by seeing the glorious Marc Almond in concert in Camden on Wednesday. He is going to be 60 this year, his voice remains incredibly powerful and seems unspoiled. He is a vocal athlete who has somehow preserved all of his abilities. He was a big influence on me circa 1982 and I was glad to go and pay homage at long last.

almond poster

 

Soft Cell ft. Marc Almond: Where The Heart Is (1982)

I am still dating the stunning red-haired model and another guy who’s also young and extravagantly good-looking but my heart isn’t in it really. I am still attached to the Person from last year. I personally think it is a bit cruel to text me and ask cryptic questions about how I am and then don’t ask to see me.

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