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No more heroes

Alongside the icons we lost in 2016, we're mourning for a world that felt like it was changing for the better.

This has been a spiteful fucker of a year. The terrorist atrocities, the refugee crisis and the fall of Western Democracy would have been enough by themselves, but really - Carrie Fisher? George Michael, on Christmas Day? That was a bit much. De trop. Unnecessary. And yet, somehow, it also seemed inevitable. The deaths of the icons of the sixties, seventies and eighties has ceased to be a set of tragic occurrences and become a sort of rolling crisis, an insistent, awful drumbeat under a change in the cultural theme music to a cruel march in a minor key.

None of this is sensible, of course. If we were being sensible, if we were to break with recent tradition and speak rationally, we know that there have been worse years. Rationally speaking, we know that death and disaster do not respect deadlines, that calendar years are semi-arbitrary human constructions - although, for that matter, so are democracy and the nation-state.

That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? I’m sure you’ll be equally cheered by a smug little reminder that correlation does not equal causation, that many of these stars are simply reaching an age when human bodies more frequently fail.

It helps to be reminded that bodies which have, over the years, been crammed with booze and fags and other exciting recreational substances, bodies which have spent decades carting about the mercurial souls of hard-working, obsessive artists and weirdoes, such bodies tend to be slightly less durable than average. It helps to be reminded, just as it always helps people who have just lost a beloved relative to hear that they lived to a ripe old age, especially given how much they smoked, and really you shouldn't be surprised. There now.

I'm sure hearing it set out rationally like that makes you feel loads better. After all, if 2016 has taught us anything, it's that serious facts soberly stated will always trump a profound emotion felt by millions, right? Stop sniveling and gender up. Look at me, I'm not crying, just like I didn't cry last night when someone sent me a photo of Carrie Fisher's loll-tongued bulldog Gary. Just like I definitely didn't lie on the sofa, sobbing 'what's going to happen to Gary?', in a way I have not been able to weep for the entire future of the species. That didn't remotely happen. Quit your moaning. You didn’t know these people, so they couldn’t possibly have touched your heart or taught you to take your strangeness in both hands and make it shine.

Irony has also died in the year 2016, which is a mercy, as it had been suffering for years, and at any rate I can’t keep this up any longer. So let me be clear: it’s okay to be a bit of a mess right now. It’s okay to have feelings about the constant, horribly symbolic loss of people you never met and only half believed in anyway. It’s okay to be angry that these people are gone just at a time when it felt like we needed them most, and needed what they represented more. It’s okay to have a sense of savage unfairness, salt rubbed into the wound of vast and dreadful change in the human condition. No amount of smug rationalising can make mourning easier, or death less unfair.

Bowie, Fisher, Ali, Michael, Prince, Cohen - all of them died too young. Everyone dies too young. There are very few individuals of whom it ought never to be said that they died too young. Many of these individuals are still living, and fact to which the observation that there is little justice in the world is both cause and consequence.

At the beginning of the year, when David Bowie returned portentously to his home planet days after dropping a final album, I wrote this:

“This is going to keep happening. The great artists and iconoclasts of the 20th century will keep on suffering the inconveniences of mortality, leaving us to reflect on the legacy they left and what it means for us. Part of a the shock when an icon dies is the reminder that there was a real person under all that makeup, behind the lights and the vice-tight press operation, a real person who had to get up in the morning and go to the bathroom like the rest of us. Our icons always let us down by being human. Too often, they let us down further by being men of a certain generation. We have still not come to terms with the fact that even starmen can sometimes be monstrous.

When a celebrity dies, fans are often castigated for engaging in 'performative grief'. In this case, performative grief is the only kind of grief that's at all appropriate. Today, they are lighting candles in Brixton and painting lightning bolts on their faces in Berlin. The news is scattered with ten thousand hagiographies, drifting like confetti onto an empty stage. And that’s alright. It’s alright to feel that you have lost something irreplaceable.

Because whilst the family mourns the man, the rest of us are mourning an idea. We are mourning our younger selves, individually and as a society. We are mourning a time that is now past, and considering how we will live up to its ideals and rectify its mistakes…..There is still time for heroes, as long as we have the courage to become them. After all, we’ve got to think about what sort of world we’re leaving for Keith Richards.”

Twelve months on, something larger seems to have been lost. Not just the people, but the age that made them. The sixties. The seventies. The early eighties. A time when the world was, in small, defiant ways and against all reason, changing for the better. A specific sort of confrontational celebrity, as iconoclastic as it was iconic, is dying with these people. Who have we got to replace them in public consciousness? Most of those who come close are politicians, AND more and more politicians are failed celebrities themselves. It was once thought that politics is showbusiness for ugly people; now our culture is oozing with precisely the people for ugly politics. 

There is a real and frightening sense of waste washing about what remains of mass culture. It is a grief that goes beyond mourning for any single artist or celebrity, but is revisited with every fresh shock, a wound which keeps being ripped open just at the point of acceptance, with no time to scab over and start to heal. It is more than coincidence that these losses are occurring at the exact historical moment when the culture that created these unique individuals is being destroyed everywhere we look.

Let the people mourn, please. Let them make gifs and badly-photoshopped memes of remembrance and scatter them across the internet like earth on the grave of a kinder culture. Something bigger is passing away, and everyone can sense it - not just Bowie and Cohen and Prince and George Michael and Muhammad Ali and Carrie Fisher, but the particular moment they inhabited, a freer time where weird and queer and mad and poor people could actually make art that moved the world. A time of excess and adventure and experimentation.

The mid-to-late twentieth century was certainly not an easy time for any and every outsider - the sixties, too, were unevenly distributed, and nostalgia is consistently conservative. But there's an innocence to that time that feels over now. Moral austerity, fiscal austerity, rising authoritarianism, the slamming shut of a brief window of social mobility and welfare provision that really did make it easier for a certain kind of artist to make it big, for people like, say, George Michael, to be both 'a soul boy and a dole boy', to live for pleasure in the face of prejudice. Let the people grieve. Something enormous is dying, and that's enormously sad. Something is starting, too, and right now that's scary as hell.

“We never did enough,” one of my baby boomer friends told me last night. “We worked hard, but it was never enough,because we thought we could relax. Our relaxations killed us. We made deals rather than be unreasonable. We lost, because we settled for too little. Now it’s all gone to shit and everything we won is about to be torn down.”

I don’t believe that’s true, not quite. I think the people we’re losing right now did as much as they could, as much as could ever be expected, and they did change the world, but they forgot - as all of us, always forget - that the world doesn’t stay changed, that there are always new battles, new stages, new challenges to be equal to, that the baddies always return for the sequels, and the Imperial Death March starts up again.

A lot of heroes died this year. We can only hope that a lot of heroes were also born. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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