Surprise package: Tackle!, by Jilly Cooper, reviewed

Jilly Cooper, queen of the British bonkbuster, has turned her attention to football for her 18th novel. She was inspired after sitting next to Sir Alex Ferguson at lunch one day. She also thanks Kenny Dalglish, Alan Curbishley and ‘my wonderful neighbour’ Tony Adams in her acknowledgements. Her friend, the former home secretary Michael Howard, even took her to a Liverpool match, where she met Steven Gerrard.  Her legions of fans need not worry, however. We are still in Rutshire, the village Cooper created for her earlier novels; Rupert Campbell-Black, the hero of Riders, Rivals and Mount!, who was allegedly partly modelled on Andrew Parker Bowles, still lives in Penscombe

A strong whiff of goodbyes: The Pole and Other Stories, by J.M. Coetzee, reviewed

New books by, articles about or Sasquatch-like sightings of J.M. Coetzee routinely send me back to that infamous YouTube clip of Geoff Dyer face-planting while being introduced by Coetzee at the Adelaide Book Festival – an episode often cited as evidence that the Nobel Laureate has no sense of humour. The garlanded ex-South African’s work is famously as dry as the Karoo, and Coetzee himself has been accused of having only ever laughed once. But a smile is visible in ‘The Pole’, the longest story in this collection. Beatriz, in her late forties, is an educated Spanish woman, ‘a good person’ in a ‘civilised’ (read dormant) marriage, involved in organising

The inequality of sex

As we all shroud ourselves in grief at being unable to watch Russell Brand any more on terrestrial television stations, a few thoughts occur. The first and most obvious is (once again) the presumption of guilt on the part of the entertainment industry, a business entirely devoid of morals and managed largely by coked-up hypocrites. Obviously, for most human beings our repulsion at the immediacy with which Brand has been cancelled by these dreadful people is challenged by our collective detestation of the man himself – yet another of those ‘comedians’ who never ever said anything funny and whose shtick was simply to reflect the zeitgeist of the age by

Rock’n’romance is dead

The alchemy wrought by a young man’s ability to gyrate and croon at the same time is notorious, turning shy mama’s boys from Presley to Rotten into love/hate machines. Something magical happens when someone – however unsightly – sings a song well, allowing him access to a quantity and quality of women undreamt of when he was just walking and talking like a normie. Two words: ‘Mick’ and ‘Hucknall’. The romantic image of the modern musician as tasty but troubled troubadour roving from town to town on his lonesome (except for his bandmates, backing singers, roadies, drug dealer and manager, of course) and taking sensual solace where he may is

The age of the male hag

This, we are told, is a very bad time to be a woman. When young, we’re warned that we are sexual prey, privy to a misogynistic ordeal both on the streets and in the sheets, courtesy of the jungle of app-mediated romance. Despite being slaves to the gym and learning to pole dance, we still can’t win. We are locked in a never-ending hell spiral that sees droves of us as young as 18 racing to the plastic surgeon, desperate to fill our faces with Botox and hyaluronic acid in a bid to look sexier, younger, hotter, fitter, less tired and more like the stars of reality TV. Did I

The naked truth about sex on TV

What a year it’s been for sex on TV. As we emerge blinking from the annual glut of televisual entertainment, I can’t get over how far we’ve come. Bridgerton, Babylon Berlin, Lady Chatterley… everybody’s at it, with no period in history so tragic that a few cheap thrills can’t be extracted from it. If you’d have told the teenage me that in my lifetime I’d see a comedian with breasts playing a piano with a penis on television, I’d have very much approved; having seen Jordan Gray do so on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live last year, I wish I hadn’t. Sex on TV has been such a long, strange

The rise of the nympho nepo daughters

Only a mother could love a nepo baby – but there are some professions in which the far reach of the dead hand of nepotism strikes me as worse than others. In such frothy fields as modelling and television presenting, the prettiest face will still usually win out: look at Maya Jama, the new compere of Love Island, daughter of a teenager and a jailbird, who resembles a film star from the golden age of MGM – Fortuna’s apology for Brooklyn Beckham. Nepotism becomes far more damaging to the culture when it sidles out of light entertainment and into newspaper columns, novels and stand-up shows; when it moves the undeserving into

Our flawed body politics

‘New year, new you’, or so they say. And as sure as eggs is eggs (particularly for the high protein advocates), new year’s resolutions for many will have revolved around the quest for a new body. I use the word ‘body’ specifically because our prevailing culture keeps finding new and alarming ways to reduce us all, but women in the most dehumanising terms, into mere bodies; bodies that can be chopped, changed, rearranged increasingly even to accommodate the outward trappings of the opposite sex. This manifests itself most completely of course in porn, as it always has, where the cold-eyed camera sees everything of the body and nothing of the

Horribly described sex: The Last Chairlift, by John Irving, reviewed

Some time ago I was a guest at a book festival in France where we were invited to dinner in the town hall with local dignitaries. I was asked if I liked asparagus. I do, I said, thinking of delicious green spears. Good, said the woman in charge, as it was the asparagus season. I was then presented with an enormous plate of leek-sized white asparagus with a tiny dab of hollandaise on the side, and then expected to eat my way through essentially a fibrous albino python as the dignitaries looked on expectantly. It was a long evening. I mention this because that’s basically what the experience of reading

A complex, driven, unhappy man: the truth about John le Carré

It is often said that the age of letter-writing is past. This forecast seems to me premature. I have edited three volumes of letters, in each case by writers labelled (though not by me) as ‘the last of their kind’. Yet here is another one, and I feel confident that more will follow. Few now write letters, but those who still do tend to take care what they write. And it will be some decades before we have used up the legacy of the living. John le Carré, who died almost two years ago at the age of 89, was one such. His work is likely to be reassessed over

Peta, Lysistrata and the comedy of a sex strike

The German branch of the ‘green’ organisation Peta (‘People for the ethical treatment of animals’) is demanding that, until men stop eating meat – apparently they cause 41 per cent more pollution than female carnivores – women must deny them sex. The same sanction had its origin, of course, in Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata (411 bc), staged during the war between Athens and Sparta (431-404 bc), just after Athens had suffered a disastrous defeat in a failed attempt on Sicily. Naturally, an organisation like Peta might well think the play was in earnest. Was not Lysistrata proposing a noble, female-instigated sex-strike, by the women of both sides, to stop a war?

Liberté, égalité, nudité: France’s new sexual politics

Montpellier France is going through a sexual civil war. After the great carnal outburst of the free-loving soixante-huitards, some have reverted to abstinence and prudishness, while others are pushing sexuality to new extremes. The crisis in French sexuality has exposed itself this summer as the clothes have come off. It’s not always a pretty sight, and not just because it isn’t true that French people don’t get fat. Major confusion on the shifting boundaries of corporal and sexual expression has grown into a peculiar conflict, exposing a national sexual neurosis. On one side of this conflict is France’s army of traditional naturists: a largely aging clan who revel in the

Why it has to be Kemi

Have you considered a career in whoring? It can be very rewarding, apparently – especially financially. World’s oldest profession and all that, a job which offers the potential for travel but which can also be done without leaving one’s bed. A chap who teaches children about sex, Justin Hancock, thinks the kids should not write off prostitution as a viable career option. Justin’s various modules and Q&As on a whole array of vices and foul perversions, most of which he seems to like, are published under the name ‘Bish’. On whoring, ‘Bish’ advises one young woman who had a, er, negative experience as a prostitute: ‘There are many, many people

The delights of two-timing

Looking back and trying to choose just one out of those incomparably bewitching women of one’s youth can be tricky. Giselle was definitely one of them – blonde, French, mesmeric, an apparition – but so was Kiki, very white-skinned, also French, patrician and very sexy. They were friends, those two, but they fell out after they chose the same boyfriend. They were also married to men who knew and liked the boyfriend, but back then such things were commonplace, and it was Paris after all. Both ladies are still alive and now quite old, Giselle a widow, Kiki a princess. There were many other beauties, of course, but those two

Beware the sex party bores

You know you’re getting old when your friends start going to sex parties. In our twenties, there were parties, and sometimes people would have sex at them. But they were never known as sex parties. Now we are firmly in our thirties, the phrase ‘sex party’ is creeping into everyday conversations alongside mortgage rates, nursery options and the cost of living. At a country wedding recently, I caught up with an old acquaintance. While we ate our lemon possets, I bored on about mother-hood and she bored on about sex parties. I can’t repeat what she divulged, but the conversation felt strangely familiar. It concerned racy outfits and group sex.

It’s wholly impossible to look away: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande reviewed

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande stars Emma Thompson as a retired, widowed religious education teacher in her sixties who books sessions with a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) because, for the first time in her life, she would like to experience good sex. Her husband was a roll on, roll off sort of fella, she’s never slept with anyone else and her body, she says, ‘feels like a carcass I’ve been dragging round all these years’. You have to admire her courage. I don’t think I’d even have the courage to book a hotel room for two hours in the afternoon. I’d probably pay for the night so that no

A flawed utopia: The Men, by Sandra Newman, reviewed

The problem for feminism is men. Not, specifically, in the sense that men are the source of women’s problems, although the statistics do tend to point in that direction. Feminism’s men problem is that, despite all this, women like men. Love men. One of the lessons of second-wave experiments in separatism is that the idealised man-free existence is always fighting against the gravity of affection. Sandra Newman’s novel The Men takes that quandary and does something clever with it. She imagines a world in which all the men and all the boys and all the trans women and all the male non-binaries and all the Y-chromosome-carrying foetuses are mysteriously spirited

A child’s eye view: Fight Night, by Miriam Toews, reviewed

Writing from a child’s point of view is a daredevil act that Miriam Toews raises the stakes on in her latest novel. The nine-year-old narrator is meant to have written the words that appear on the page. But then there is something inherently risky about Toews’s whole undertaking as a novelist. She has made her name in fiction that grapples with the restrictive Mennonite community in which she was raised – keeping faith with it and betraying it simultaneously. Her masterly Women Talking confronted the community head on, depicting the secret meetings of a group of women deciding how to respond to pervasive sexual violence. Now we move outside the

Tina: the drug devastating the gay community

Something is ravaging through the gay community, leaving death and misery in its wake, yet few are willing to talk about it. If I’d written that sentence a generation ago, I’d have been referring to the Aids crisis. But this time the enemy isn’t a virus, but a substance called ‘tina’ or ‘ice’. It is a methamphetamine – a stimulant drug that is either smoked or injected into the veins. Tina is also called crystal meth, made famous by the Netflix series Breaking Bad. It causes a rapid increase in dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which leads to euphoria, alertness, energy and self-confidence. It also triggers an almost insatiable increase in

This be the curse: Philip Larkin’s big problem

In matters of sex, Philip Larkin was late getting away. On his 23rd birthday, he wrote defeatedly to Kingsley Amis: ‘I really do not think it likely I shall ever get into the same bed as anyone again because it is so much trouble, almost as much trouble as standing for parliament.’ His 2014 biographer, James Booth, adds that Larkin was ‘still effectively a virgin… [and] Amis was puzzled that his friend failed to follow through his pursuit of sexual satisfaction’. There is no join-the-dots explanation for what Larkin called the ‘sex-fear and auto-erotic fantasies’ that beset him all his life. But in the centenary of his birth, it’s time