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By Ashleylister @ashleylister
It's been an interesting cultural and literary experience, reading Henry Miller's 'Tropic of Cancer ' and David Lodge's 'Thinks... ' side by side this last week, both so-called 'sexy' books; the former written near the beginning of the 20th century and the latter right at its end. And I wondered if I could turn my reflections thereon into a blog that fits the given theme of  Journey . Let's give it a go - not a piece of literary criticism per se , more an assessment of how social mores changed during the course of the last hundred years.

Other start and end points might have served equally well to illustrate the journey ( 'Ulysses ' to 'Platform ' or 'Lady Chatterley's Lover ' to 'The Lemon Grove ' for instance), but I've not read any of them recently. I hope it all doesn't sound too academic or dry. I think it's fascinating, but if it's not your thing, you can always fast-forward to the poem 'From Cockermouth To Fannyfield', which is anything but.Novels have always been indicators of what manners, morals, principles and standards pertain in a community in the age in which they are written, of what it is acceptable to relate in does the way in which they get received by society. Spoiler alert: Henry Miller's was banned in the USA and Britain until the 1960s. 'Tropic of Cancer ' (published in 1934) captured bohemian life in seedy inter-war Paris in the late twenties and early thirties, while Lodge, famed for his 'campus' novels, sited the action of 'Thinks... ' (published in 2001) unsurprisingly at and around the new University of Gloucester shortly before the millennium. And by 'sexy' books I mean novels in which sex features significantly, as a motivator of characters and a shaper of plot, as an implicit and sometimes explicit event in the characters' lives, and as an influence on the use of language. Even though it is not exactly the dominant preoccupation of either work, it helps mold the topography of both books.



I don't intend to summarise the plots of the two novels, more to outline their structure, style, intent and impact. The protagonist of 'Tropic of Cancer ' is unnamed, but is surely Miller himself. Probably the most exposure contemporary Britons have had to him was as Lawrence Durrell's American writer friend in 'The Durrells ', the recent TV adaptation of 'My Family and Other Animals '. Miller's debut novel is about a writer seeking to live outside of the constricting norms of society, deliberately on the edge, literally living hand-to-mouth cadging meals, money and lodging off the artistic bohemian circle in Paris while he records his observations of their lives and preoccupations (trying to earn a crust, trying to get laid, trying not to be bored) along with his own somewhat stream-of-consciousness commentary on life, Montparnasse and everything. It has a random, episodic, uncertain sense about it which mirrors the unpredictability of the low lives and fleeting loves it reflects. It is a witty and gritty creation, even poetic in places, both illuminating about its milieu and thought-provoking in its response to the shattering social impact of the recent Great War, though is nowadays also rightly critiqued for its chauvinistic attitude towards women. But it became notorious more for the earthy frankness of the language in which it was written (including extensive use of the word cunt), than for its uncompromising non-conformist attitude, its portrayal of bohemian life and the provocative questions it posed about art, morality, society.
'Tropic of Cancer ' was regarded as a daring and liberating work of fiction by the avant-garde and as decadent, obscene and pornographic by the ultimate arbiters of taste, the official censors in the USA and Britain who banned its publication or sale for decades. Here are a couple of examples of why it was regarded as a "degenerate book" and "not fit to be read by decent men and women":
O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out.'Only a rich cunt can save me now,' he says with an air of utmost weariness. 'One gets tired of chasing after new cunts all the time. It gets mechanical. The trouble is, you see, I can't fall in love. I'm too much of an egoist. Women only help me to dream. It's a vice, like drink or opium. I've got to have a new one every day; if I don't I get morbid.''He gets down on his knees...he opens the little petals...and then he says - as if that weren't enough for me - then he tells me he buried his head in her muff. And when he did that, so help me Christ, if she didn't swing her legs around his neck and lock him there. Imagine a fine, sensitive woman like that swinging her legs around his neck !'

Where at one end of the century Henry Miller became notorious, at the other end David Lodge is approaching the status of national hero, winner of many Book of the Year awards, appointed Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres no less. There are two main protagonists in 'Thinks... ', which is a tightly-plotted comedy of sexual manners on and around a university campus. Philandering Professor Ralph Messenger has his eyes on recently bereaved creative writing lecturer Helen Reed who resists his advances until she discovers her husband had been serially unfaithful to her and Messenger's wife is also having an affair. Despite the frequent and fairly candid sexual interludes, 'Thinks... ' is primarily an exploration of consciousness and the enigmatic intricacies of human desires and emotions. And at the dawn of the new millennium, it would be laughable to think that any of the following would raise a disapproving eyebrow, let alone trouble the censors:
'Well, d'you like what you see, Ralph Messenger?' I whispered hoarsely 'yes' in all sincerity, and she laughed softly and came and stood in front of me so I was staring straight at her crotch sparsely fleeced with ginger pubic hair veiling but not concealing the pinky-brown crease of her cunt.

We were shouting at each other, shouting 'Fuck me!' and 'I love you!' and moving towards some tremendous volcanic orgasm...she screamed and I howled 'Yes!' as we came together...and then there was the sound of someone knocking indignantly on the wall of the room next door and we burst out laughing.Isabel Hotchkiss...What a lot of pubic hair she had, black and springy and densely woven, like a birdsnest, you wouldn't have been surprised to find a little white egg warm inside her labia [sighs ]. BSE and AIDS between them have made two of the greatest pleasures in life, prime beef and wild pussy, possible causes of a horrible death...sad. Domestic pussy is not what it was.

Yet it is the case that without Miller (and a few notable others) battering with literary might at the doors of stuffy propriety over decades gone by, the modern novelist's freedom to write frankly about (and our freedom to read about) such a key aspect of being human as our intimate sexual relationships might still be beyond our reach. How very fortunate we are. And if you're wondering which of the two books I enjoyed reading more, the answer is 'Thinks... '. It amuses, dazzles and intrigues in a way that 'Tropic... ' doesn't (nor was ever intended to); a deftly wielded scalpel to the latter's sledgehammer; a topiary garden as compared to a landfill site - and yet I value both.Okay, some shameless Carrie & BoJo inspired 'bucolic with a dash of vitriolic' rambling madness to conclude the final stage of this Dead Good Saturday journey...
From Cockermouth To Fannyfield
Leaving aside Johnsons Stump and Symonds Yat,
(there's a super-injunction slapped on that......on the office sofa would you believe?Never mind his wife or the ministerial code,and his last hairdresser and her baby not evenhalf way safely to Canada yet), any bonkerscouple wanting a fucking holiday in the UKduring lockdown with a 4 by 4 and glamping yurtcould do worse than blaze the topographical trailof amorous venues from Cockermouth to Fannyfieldvia Titty Hill, Moisty Lane, Bushygap, Feltwell,Twatt, Cockup, Brown Willy (oops), Honeyholes,Tarts Hill, Wetwang, Inchmore and Snatchup.Carry on coming, early or late, don't forget to shut the gate and please don't hang used condoms on the bushes. Watch out for doggers and take your rubbish home.Why not pitch it as a working break? Practice run for fucking up a country? You could claim the lot on expenses!Because I know that there are doubters in your midst, assuming that I totally make this stuff up, I offer the following as irrefutable cartographical evidence that the truth is out there... 
...and not just those two, but all the place names cited in the poem. đŸ˜‰
Thanks for reading. Stay oriented, S ;-) Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook

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