We came, we saw, we conquered.
No, that’s not right. We came, they all came. One lady came 49 times! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What follows is my travelogue of the days leading up to the first London Masturbate-a-Thon: Robert’s and my Tour de ‘Thon. Consider it the behind-the-scenes dish to accompany the forthcoming documentary which will air on UK Channel 4’s Wank Week.
And to think that the point of the whole thing (well, one of a number of points) was to compare how edgy we are in wank-friendly San Francisco with the shock of the Brits and their stiff upper lips. Hey, *they* have a Wank Week on TV, and we don’t! Who’s ahead of the game? And as you noted if you saw my Saturday (5. August) entry briefly noting the Masturbate-a-Thon’s success, more than upper lips got stiff.
I’ll be addressing the role of TV, actually press in general, in a future entry, so if this interests you, stay tuned. Apparently a fair amount of the UK press attention to this event had to do with Channel 4’s involvement, which was a good deal more controversial there than I think it would be here. And I want to get right on with telling you about our trip, so I’m going to address that topic later.
That would be Monday, although, since we traveled from San Francisco to London, it telescoped into two days. It was a long and half-arduous flight; travel is hard for Robert, with his pain-related disability, and walking and queueing in airports is pretty awful too. The first step of the journey had us up way before dawn and then standing in a Delta line at the airport for 90 minutes; they literally had to hold the plane for us. But in New York we switched to MaxJet and traveled as comfortably as we ever have; good thing, because (as we’d told the documentary producers, who got us there in the first place) if R. were wrecked by traveling, there’d be no real point in bringing us over in the first place.
Liz and her doc crew met us at Stansted airport, the better to document our jet lag. We met Liz in the spring when she came over to film our San Francisco Masturbate-a-Thon, and this time she had Rob with her doing sound, as she had in SF, and they walked backwards with their equipment, immortalizing our unsteady trip down a ramp with all our luggage packed onto a cart with a bum wheel. A London cabbie had brought them out to get us, in one of those taxis with jump seats, so while England’s green and pleasant land whizzed by outside, the camera looked up our noses as we foggily speculated at Liz’s insistance how the London ‘Thon would come off. They taped the cabbie giving his opinion too (he, like every cabbie we had, thought it was a dandy idea. “Why not, then?” seemed to be the united cabdriver response.)
I should note that Robert and I have been in London together only once before, a very brief visit that commenced at about 11 pm on a summer evening in 1994. We had just come over on a jetfoil from Belgium, through which we had trained while eating bread and chocolate. We’d been in Amsterdam at the AIDS conference, the one moved quickly from Harvard when the US refused to relax its policy of barring HIV-positive people even long enough to let the international delegates get in. In London we’d stayed in a not-very-charming neighborhood in a horrific bug-infested hotel which was our cabbie’s recommendation. It turned out to have upper floors populatd by dole cases, which meant that we ate baked beans and flabby bacon next to other bewildered tourists and a lot of resident junkies.
That having been our prior London experience, we were quite pleased to be delivered to the fabulous Rookery, a new-ish hotel meant to look very, very old (and occupying a seventeenth-century building). Our olde London experience, complete with a room named Clarice of Cokke’s Lane (for a whore who had once plied her trade on the alley just outside the city’s gates), promised to be a perfect cure for our heroin-and-limp-bacon memories, and indeed it was, complete with a basket of hot croissants every morning. But before we would be allowed to eat any of London’s newly fabulous food, we had a dragon to slay: Liz had booked us to debate a Christian homophobe.
Around the block, in a vacant bar with good daytime lighting, Liz sat us on a sofa and aimed her camera at us while we argued with Stephen Green, a Brit holy-roller who, in a much different accent than we’re used to, assured us that we are going to hell. It seemed to us that he was in hell already, since he insisted that the Masturbate-a-Thon was a homosexual event and lost no opportunity to talk very graphically about gay men’s sexual practices. Now, there’s a word for this, and Robert and I coined it: absexuality, an orientation in which a person gets erotic pleasure or focus through a highly sexualized kind of opprobrium regarding other people’s sexual practices. (I write about it in Real Live Nude Girl, if you’re interested.) This guy could *not* stop talking about rimming, etc., and he could not handle it when we told him that people of all genders and orientations did all the things about which he was fulminating.
“The whole point of this,” I said, as he explained how the homosexual agenda (with a little help from the secular humanists) had coarsened England beyond compare, “is that people of every orientation and gender masturbate. This is not a gay event at all — this is for everyone.” It didn’t parse in Mr. Green’s anilinguistically-inclined brain. And maybe it was just the jet lag, but I felt myself in a time warp, as if it was the 1970s again and people actually talked about secular humanists and seemed to have just discovered that gay men had sex.
Poor guy. Liz had us talk to US anti-masturbators, too, back in May: a couple of adorable churchy white rappers from Sacramento, who hadn’t picked up the true gift of fulmination but had the best logo on their stuff: “Satan’s a pimp, don’t be his ‘ho!”. They even agreed with us, ultimately, that it was OK for you to masturbate on the phone with your wife when you were out on tour. Stephen Green couldn’t wrap his brain around this… not that he probably indulges in lustful thoughts about his wife at all. Those synapses don’t leave the topic of sodomy for long: only long enough to work in a Bible verse, or, proving that he isn’t really an American after all, a snippet of a John Donne poem.
I told Liz, who hadn’t actually gotten very much masturbation-related footage out of him, that she had succeeded in creating the most surral morning of my life. (Of course, this is partly because in Jet-Lag World, it wasn’t morning at all: it was 3 am at best.) She grinned the grin of a perverse media svengali. Hey, I’d have been proud of myself, too, for getting something like that odd hour to transpire. TV, playing god!
That afternoon we had to go back to the bar for another documentary responsibility, this one *far* nicer: meeting Tony Kerridge from Marie Stopes International, our beneficiary organization. (The Terrence Higgins Trust had also said a very reluctant yes to involvement, but they sent literally not a single volunteer, did not help with the press, and were clearly very nervous about any undue attention they might receive). Tony, a very savvy guy who had no problem working the Marie Stopes mission of international sexual health and family planning into the attention being given the Masturbate-a-Thon, came to the meeting with Helene, a MSI nurse who planned to be onsite at the ‘Thon to help ensure the health of all.
We had to stay up late enough to do a phone interview at 8 pm; then the jet lag was over, at least for the night.
Karin Tobiason, Good Vibes press specialist extraordinaire, arrived. She’d been sent to help wrangle the whole thing, which had already promised to go out of control, media-wise. We had *far* more press attention for the London ‘Thon than we’ve ever had for a US event, and given that the Masturbate-a-Thon arose from a Good Vibrations think tank early in the history of National Masturbation Month (which also arose from GV’s brain trust, just after Joycelyn Elders was fired), it seemed wise to have someone on hand who could keep track of everything. We stumbled out to synchronize our watches at the closest awesome restaurant (The Fence on Cowcross: check out its sophisticated take on bangers and mash) while Robert slept. The neighborhood, once home to Clarice of Cokke’s Lane and other whores and cutpurses, is now crawling with young businesswomen in sexy shoes.
Thursday; two more days til the Masturbate-a-Thon! And today the press attention starts in earnest. We went to Marie Stopes International’s HQ in Fitzrovia for the official press conference, though most media, Tony told us when we arrived, were holding out to attend the ‘Thon itself. On the way down the street we saw a curious sign on a door: right above the bell a little plaque read, “This is not a brothel!”
MSI, founded in 1923 by suffragist Marie Stopes (who is sort of the Margaret Sanger of the UK, if you will, and MSI something like our Planned Parenthood), has been providing family planning information and health services for lo these many years. One of our UK friends, on hearing that MSI was to be our beneficiary, said, “Oh, I went there as a kid with my dad. It turned out he’d gone in to get a vasectomy!” Posters about condoms and safer sex adorn the walls of the media offices, where Tony works. Since MSI has offices and clinics around the world, some were aimed at very different audiences, culturally.
We gave our pitch: the Masturbate-a-Thon’s history, our expectations of the event (we had no clue, in fact, but said we hoped for at least as much participation as we had in SF, and of course there was a world record to perhaps break). Questions, while pretty sophisticated, still focused closely on the “Shock the Brits” trope. Have these people forgotten they gave us punk rock? Goodness me. And they had a kind of brothel for everything under the sun back when the Americans hadn’t figured out how to make wooden fences yet. Brits *invented* kink! But perhaps the press is not being invited to sex parties these days.
We learned something new and useful: that the angle of erection considered inappropriate to show is derived from the shape of a peninsula in Scotland, the Mull of Kintyre. Of course! This from a nation that gave us our arcane system of weights and measures based on the length of kings’ thumbs and such; it made perfect sense. This tidbit for your (and my) next cocktail party came courtesy of the journalist from Razzle magazine, a fine old porno which, our friend Clive later told us, had not changed a bit since the 70s when he used to find discarded ones in trash bins. Razzle actually donated a case of mags to the ‘Thon. ID Lube had offered itself as a corporate sponsor: with porn and lube taken care of it seemed the only variable to a successful ‘Thon would be the lengths of peoples’ arms.
(I had pointed this out to Stephen Green, actually: “God made peoples’ arms just the right length.” He seemed unmoved by this ecclesiastical proof of the rightness of self-love. Come to think of it, he didn’t like the phrase “self-love,” either.)
At a lovely lunch post-press conference with Tony’s boss, an elegant lady named Patricia, we learned historical information that explained the “This is not a brothel!” sign. That is, everything in Fitzrovia had pretty much once been a brothel. It was the neighborhood where Oscar Wilde had made the fateful acquaintance of Bosie.
EVENING WITH THE SHOCK JOCK:
Howard Stern has better things to do than talk to us about masturbation, it seems, but that wasn’t true of Tim Shaw, award-winning maniac star of Kerrang radio’s night program. (Also way smarter and cooler than my average US shock-jock guy, so many of whom have been middle-aged and bitter.) We trained up to Birmingham to be on his show with sidekicks Juicy Lucy and Four Fat Blokes (whose surname appeared to be On A Shopping Trolley). The TV crew, whose car had been impounded, got there late, by which time we had already gotten into trouble with the W word: Wank. We use it without thinking in the US, but then, it’s borrowed from the Brits… and who knew it was considered obscene? And to confuse us further, that’s just on radio… but not TV, as Channel 4 is already demonstrating by preparing Wank Week for the masses! What? TV can use the term after 9 pm, but Tim will get fined.
Porn stars had been promised, masturbating — no rule against that, apparently. But they were no-shows, and so strippers, phoned in at the last minute, arraived instead. A Dutch businesswoman on a busman’s holiday, where she strips and lives like a maniac for one month each summer: living her dream, surrounded by cute-as-bugs Brit birds (that’s what Tim called them) and one Latvian with a perfect ass. They couldn’t focus on masturbation, though. We were actually lucky to get out of there with our pants.
Heading south in the documentary crew’s new Prius we had a minor car accident on way home, which delayed us by at least an hour and ensured that Robert’s jet lag would never resolve. Finally I lived out the Tom Robinson Band song “2-4-6-8 Motorway”: “Another motorway sun coming up in the morning light.” And we got back into London at dawn.
We slept all day. No food really since Thursday lunch with the Marie Stopes people, at that charming fish restaurant Pescatoria whose motto is “In Cod We Trust.”
But the Brits had decorated a car, want us to flyer Piccadilly Circus and announce the ‘Thon through a bullhorn — oh yeah, they’re LOTS more conservative than us, these Brits. (The cute car can be seen pictured on Saturday’s blog entry.)
Most passers-by seemed to try not to react; plenty of smirks, some double-takes, but the upper lip was stiff, if only because they saw Liz hanging out of the car pointing her camera at them. This, I suppose, may have disappointe Liz a little; she was looking for action, after all. But we saw a suppressed smile on the lips of a nun on Trafalgar Square, which caused me to cry, “You people don’t need me! Your *nuns* are smiling! I should go home and see to our own nuns!”
Of course, this is the country that gave us Sister Wendy, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised.
Carnaby Street was the ticket. At just about 5 on a Friday night they were spilling out of pubs and wanted to be on TV. We handed out flyers and, who knows, made some recruits. A swing around Piccadilly Circus revealed it and the theatre district to be far too populated with families for my taste.
I am NOT bullhorning in a neighborhood with kids, sorry, a sex freak has to have a limit.
Well. OK, I’ll bullhorn for a Guardian pic, but not on a street with kids on it. (There’s a word for this = media whore — but still, I’m a trained professional and I need to act like it.)
Finally we got to see Drop Studio, where the ‘Thon will be held. The decorators, hard at work to make it look like a Moroccan seraglio, pounded nails and hung drapes while we tried to stay out of the way. The space is a photo studio; seems small, given all the pr fuss! Will we all fit? I wondered.
I had a date to do a big TV news show. They call August the “silly season” when parliament is off on break, with little serious news to focus on; of course, this year most serious news is from the Middle East. But there was time to focus on a Scots MP’s messy divorce, and then I went on to give the show a little fillip of sexological discourse. (I said “This event is about the discourse” so many times that if I had a pound each time, I could have paid for another night at the lovely Rookery.)
I managed not to say “wank”; good thing, it was before 9 pm. While I was there, R. did Colourful Radio. Raced off for dinner with our friend Clive at Sake, a gorgeous Japanese restaurant on the other side of Smithfield Market, then hied back to the hotel for BBC Radio call-in (with Liz in our hotel room documenting — done from bed, in homage to John and Yoko).
More wine and chat in the Rookery’s charming conservatory. The perfectly ordinary-looking Brit foursome already drinking there were breaking into song. A Rod Stewart tune? Goodness. And then Roy Orbison.
We put Clive to bed on our floor, swiping the sofa cushions from the conservatory. Who will miss them?
Oops, an early morning call from the nervous front desk man proved what a together hotel this really is: “Did you take those cushions?” I confessed and stumbled out to put them back. So much for unbroken sleep on the eve of the First Ever London Masturbate-a-Thon!