Ball boys: players from the French and Irish rugby union teams chat in the locker room. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Self: If you want to be in a naked throng, the changing room still rules

Gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners.

A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.

The peculiar nature of our taboos is such that we seldom – if ever – get to experience the primal state of human being, which is surely to be one among a crowd of naked apes. True, there is that nominatively determined performance artist, Spencer Tunick, who assembles large nude groups in public places, but the very contrivance of these fleshy sculptures always makes their elements seem rather . . .  clothed.

Then there are occasional nude bicycle rides through large cities. I’ve no idea who organises these streaking streaks of streakers, but it’s certainly exhilarating to find yourself standing, say, in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London, watching as all those breasts and scrotums stream past. But I for one have never felt inclined to saddle up, any more than I’ve seriously considered visiting a nudist colony – what would be the point? As countless nudists have testified: the initial surrealism of queuing for sausage and two veg with your sausage and two veg on display is soon enough rendered quotidian: British nudists are heavily robed by their innate modesty – even when you can stare straight up their jacksies.

No, if you want to be in a naked throng the changing room remains the best bet; but what a change there’s been there since boyhood. There was no great nudity taboo in my family home – my father had no inhibitions at all, wandering about the house buck naked and gaily saluting anyone who happened to walk in on him while he was – in the Rabelaisian formulation – performing his necessary offices. My mother didn’t have quite the same abandon, confining herself to standing in her underwear in front of a mirror while chanting “fat and old”. No wonder while I was growing up I was preternaturally modest, a veritable Alyosha Karamazov, who couldn’t bear so much as the utterance of the word “bare”.

However, with age comes acceptance: nowadays I, too, stalk the house with my knackers clacking; I, too, leave the bathroom door unlocked (in fact, there is no lock anyway); I, too, meditate in front of the mirror upon the strange inscriptions that time has carved on my wanting flesh.

And in the changing room I delight in being a scrawny, piebald, moulting man among men. Ideally, I’d like to be such among women as well, but given the perverse endurance of our taboos, this isn’t a possibility. Now that I no longer have to teeter from one foot to the other while attempting to shield my groin area from the sportive Actaeons, what amazes me about the experience is that there’s no correlation between a man’s outward characteristics and his inner awareness. I swim thrice weekly at the Marshall Street Baths hard by Carnaby Street in London and I dare say a fair few of my fellow swimmers are familiar with what Father Ted described as “the rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. Be that as it may, gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young, fair or a veritable impasto of epidermal corruption – it makes no difference: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners. Some disport themselves in the showers as if they were walruses snorting on a wave-dashed ice floe, others ablute in their swimming costumes, pulling out the front so as to funnel a jet on to their nylon-coddled genitals. Weird.

My female informants tell me that on their side of the splash bath the same lack of a rubric applies: beautiful young women, who wouldn’t look out of place cruising through the chlorine in a giant seashell, with only chiffon wisps to mask breasts and mons veneris, are beset by shyness – yet great-aged wattled creatures stomp about carefree. I find this heartening: we may think we live in a society obsessed by body form, but perhaps the commodification only really gets put on along with the clothes that reduce us to a set of economic and cultural variables. It may be that if we want to lose our nagging sense of ugliness and inferiority the best course is to get naked in a crowd: dress to kill – strip to live.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Lady Macbeth.
Show Hide image

Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496