Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse is Huw Lemmey's story of a young man, Andy "Chubz" Wilson, who spends a long, hot summer unemployed in London fucking around the city via Grindr. He meets a young, left-wing journalist, Owen, whose earnestness is matched only by his sex drive. In the background, a poppers-addicted Nigel Farage rises to power as Prime Minister, and police crawl the sweating city streets as they begin to erupt in sex and violence.
It's political pornography. Not in some mortifying Michael Gove in the Whip's Office way, and not because it tries to make its sex right-on and joyless (the sex is filthy, uninhibited and completely uninterested in any agenda except pleasure). It's political because of the people it involves, the class and taste lines it crosses and, especially, because of the way Chubz's getting off is placed in direct, violent conflict with other uses of the city. All these things—class struggle, the cult of Farage, and our obsessive relation to technology—are hung around the characters' desire to cram as much sex into their days as possible.
As suggested by the reference in the title, the "Owen" of the book is of course based on real-life journalist Owen Jones, author of Chavs, The Demonization of the Working Class. The real Owen would probably raise an eyebrow at what his fictional counterpart gets up to:
"He's in a spunk-fuelled stupor, a high that pumps more and more opiatic pleasure into his balls, and he's grinning and his dick is pumping out spunk, not precum but thick white globules, a rhythmic pump pump pump ... His face is beyond serene, though. We look at each other in this breathless ecstasy – he seems so peaceful knowing this is it, this is the end of his brief time here, willing himself towards death in the warmth of my rectum, sweating semen from every pore."
But Lemmey isn't just interested in the grotesque outer limits of fantasy for the hell of it. He has suggested that he cares less about the actual Owen Jones than in how his public image is received, and in what has to be excluded from a public persona to be counted as "credible." In that sense—fantasizing about what a public figure keeps private—Chubz has its roots in internet fanfiction, a genre dominated by young women writing graphic fantasies about their favorite celebrities. Chubz is more ironized and self-aware than this, and in a sense has to be: there's only so much mileage in a sex fantasy before you start thinking about the way sex connects to the world around you. It's smut, but it's not just smut.
One of the ways to understand the politics of scandalous literature is to go back to France in the years before the Revolution. Paris was a city that thrived on smutty stories, and political careers were made or broken by the circulation of gossip, innuendo, and scandal. Simply by standing on a street corner in Paris, you would hear some filthy rumor or burning "secret." Real news and libels, or collections of anecdotes, circulated in little haphazard gazettes printed in presses on the French borders—free from the elaborate categories of censorship applied to printed books by the French authorities.
Robert Darnton, the preeminent historian of this literary underground, has uncovered the networks through which these best-sellers circulated. Sometimes the banned works were those of dangerous political philosophers and radicals, but more often outright pornographic works, or raging anti-establishment tracts—and they all circulated in the same catalogues. It's a useful corrective to the idea that the literature that proliferated before the Revolution was all (or even largely) chin-stroking philosophy about the rights of man.
By far the most interesting were the books that purported to be the "secret lives" or "authentic memories" of this-or-that member of the aristocracy, often one of the king's mistresses. These books traced (in great and salacious detail) the degeneracies of the regime, either through their sexual disorder, or little stories that foregrounded something corrupt in their character. One of these books of libels began with Marie Antoinette masturbating, then describes her various orgies, and goes on to describe the king as impotent, limp, and useless.
The French police at the time took these libelles seriously, both because they were injurious to public opinion of the monarchy and because they could have serious effects on public order. Darnton mentions one 1752 rumor that said police were stealing working-class children so a royal prince could bathe in their blood, actually causing a riot. Slander, rumor, and gossip of this kind were literal weapons, with aristocrats even hiring libellistes to bolster their reputation and destroy others. It's hard to reconstruct how much of a role these libels played in creating the crisis of legitimacy before the revolution—though some of their authors were among the revolutionary leadership—but they undoubtedly spread the image of a monarchy in decay, where the body of the king, the source of law, was rotted from the inside out.
It's in this tradition of secret lives that we have to read Chubz's fictional Farage: nursing a secret loathing of his supporters, driven to illness by endless pints of ale, possessed by a secret longing for European food and sophistication—a delicate sfogliatella and glass of light Italian rosé—that he has to hide to maintain his public image, and addicted to poppers at the behest of a continental dominatrix called Gutrot Essenem.
The Farage character is of course fictional, but the point of the fiction is to bring out the contradictions that must mark the inner life of someone like a Farage, who must pretend every day he's just one of the people, despite his stockbroker background and fine tastes. It takes a commonplace of political life—that political leaders must pretend to be cartoon versions of themselves—and explores what twisted desires might lie behind the façade. Reading it makes it impossible to look at Farage's swollen grin without thinking he's just huffed half a bottle of poppers.
But not all of the book is about the secret life of Nigel Farage: much of it is about Chubz's pursuit of sexual pleasure, his negotiation of the city, and his use of Grindr. Chubz is a pleasure seeker, uninterested in respectability, politics, or romance. As Owen takes him on an excruciating date in an All Bar One temple of blandness, all the typical codes of mainstream gay life, the desire for respectable profession, relationship, and career break against Chubz's insistence that he just wants "spit and skin and dick." But even that's not quite true. In the middle of sex later, Chubz thinks to himself, "I wish this were mediated." "I wish this were data."
Desire and regulation are never far away from each other, and when they come into conflict it's often over who gets to be in public and use public space. Grindr promises Chubz and its many devotees not only an on-demand menu of sexual options, but a way of reordering the city, uncovering sexual opportunity around every corner. It's an ordering of the city that is only open to its participants, and a way of reclaiming control over a city only otherwise configured for transportation between home and grinding, miserable work. Chubz's worry is about whether, unaware, digital augmentation has become an inextricable part of how he thinks about sex.
But Grindr is largely a privatization of the kind of cruising that used to happen in certain public toilets and desolate night-time urban spaces. The vague conception of gay history most young men grow up with is that being gay was "illegal" until somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and then there's been a gradual swing in tolerance until the present day. If we think of our predecessors at all, it is at the mercy of violent police and a hostile society, haunting rundown establishments in the hope of a furtive fuck.
Matt Houlbrook, in his history Queer London, challenges this notion: though subject to police raids, early 20th Century London had a wide range of queer institutions, from Turkish Baths to private clubs, and a huge number of public spaces used for sex. For many of the men Houlbrook describes, the queer and the urban are inextricably linked—the book begins with a letter from a married man who had "only been queer since [he] came to London"—and often possessed of a defiant pride and very little sense of shame. The same man, in the middle of a police raid, drew himself up, introduced himself to the presiding Inspector as "The Countess" and demanded that he take one of the young cops on the raid home with him.
Houlbrook uncovers a world that extends far beyond contemporary notions of the homosexual, to encompass the highly-flamboyant West End queen, the generally respectable middle-class homosexual, and the otherwise "normal" working-class man. It's surprising how widely tolerated out-and-out flamboyancy was, but the real surprise is in the highly-fluid, highly-conflicted sexuality of "normal" men, who were otherwise straight. Though freer to openly enjoy sex than middle-class homosexuals, a "normal" guy who had just enjoyed some gay sex clearly felt the need to scorn, extort or violently separate himself from the "brown-hatter" he had just fucked. There is nothing so brutal and uncaring as desire satisfied.
The 1957 report issued by the Wolfenden Committee—which had as its remit two "problems" of urban life, female prostitution and male homosexuality, and took evidence from distinguished middle class homosexuals—marked the beginning of toleration for homosexual men, and the gradual decline of the old queer world. But the rise of easily available, anonymous apps like Grindr have meant easy access to a digital cruising ground where cross-class liaisons, and interactions with men who consider themselves "straight," are far likelier than for those in highly "gay" environments like late 20th century Soho. How else, these days, would a feral NEET like Chubz meet an established middle-class journalist like Owen?
Illustration by Michael Oswell and Huw Lemmey
Lemmey is too canny to give us a simple tale about Grindr as a tool of liberation, though it must have been tempting, given the endless parade of pop drips lining up to condemn anything but the most dishwater-dull sexuality—for instance Sam Smith saying hookup apps have "ruined romance." His visual work with graphic designer Michael Oswell shows clearly how technology that claims to free us can just loop back around into narrow repression.
Though Chubz is without a doubt the smartest character in the book, his pursuit of pleasure and violent catharsis as the annihilation of existing society isn't a conventional hero's tale. The book is far more interested in the way sexual pleasure is always almost a liberation from alienation and political oppression, and the way looking for sex forms and changes our sense of self: "I identify as red neon in wet asphalt and I use the pronouns now/nearby/online," says Chubz.
If you watch the news after reading Chubz, it's hard not to wonder about the secret desires that lurk behind the eyes of David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Hard not to see sex—and power, which always follows hotly on its heels—lurking in every interaction. It provides an easy way of asking: how might those in power be lying to us? What might they be concealing? Even if Chubz's anal apocalypse isn't your cup of tea—they're good questions to ask.
Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse is available from Montez Press
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