Fifty Shades of Grey's cover
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Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Critics' main problem with these books seems simply to be that they are porn for women.

Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios[1], a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

That's it. That's all. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

"But it's badly written!", I hear you cry. Um, hello? It's PORN. Whilst there is some pornography out there written with a deft stylistic hand – from Anais Nin and Henry Miller to Anne Rice's luscious, filthy Sleeping Beauty series – that's hardly the point, even if you don't buy Oglaf author Trudy Cooper's adage that "erotica just means porn that works for me." A dildo painted with an intricate lubricant-insoluble motif may look delightful, but a plain old rubber shocker gets the job done just as well. This book is porn. It is for wanking to. Pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits – the average 20-minute RedTube clip has hundreds of thousands of views and practically nobody leaves comments complaining that the lighting is garish, that the pounding cheese music is weird and unsettling, or that there's someone's Bassett hound running about in the background[2].

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Tens of thousands of words have been wasted over whether Christian Grey, our well-tailored, long-dicked hunk of fictional man-meat, is an appropriate lust-object for today's right-thinking feminist, but less attention has been paid to the fact that Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, rather embodies the contemporary concept of "fuckable". Those of us reading Fifty Shades may not all be innocent virgin college graduates, but getting moistly involved with a hardcore sexual fantasy feels less uncomfortable if you can temporarily imagine that you are. Virgin college graduates don't have to feel guilty for fantasising about being seduced by a gorgeous young multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own private jet and a fleet of audis who's rather unnervingly like Mark Zuckerberg, if Mark Zuckerberg were hot and well-dressed.

Derivative and aesthetically childish though they may be, women everywhere are reading these books, especially now that ebook technology uptake has reached a point where anyone with a smartphone or Kindle can read porn privately on public transport, or one-handed in their bedrooms. The only people who haven't bothered to read the damn books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it – which seems to be the only possible explanation for why the parts of the series that have been most anxiously discussed are also the least interesting.

Firstly, there's the sadomasochism. Katie Roiphe's now-infamous Newsweek cover story claimed that the popularity of the Fifty Shades books was evidence that women everywhere are tired of all this feminist liberation and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats. But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book – by far the most in-depth and detailed sex-scenes are "vanilla" – and our protagonist spends most of the time feeling shocked and horrified about her paramour's predilictions, to an extent that anyone actually involved in the S&M community might well find offensive. The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book, at least, is merely an extended fantasy of possession, of being utterly desired by a person who takes full physical, moral and social responsibility for any boning that may or may not ensue. In a world where women are still made to feel ashamed of ever wanting to experience sexual pleasure for its own sake, that's an appealing fantasy.

Secondly, and most importantly – these books started out as smutty fan fiction. The publishers are extremely keen to underplay this aspect of the Fifty Shades books, and E. L James doesn't discuss it in interviews, but the fact that these books began as extended stories published on the internet in the Twilight fandom community is, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon.

If you're not familiar with fan fiction, or "fanfic", please just take my word for it that there are countless thousands of men, women and girls out there on the internet – mostly women, mostly young women, and some of them extremely young women – writing and sharing long, dirty stories set in their favourite fictional universes, from Harry Potter to Buffy and Twilight. These stories tend to place beloved characters in sweaty pairings that make private sexual fantasies a community experience – readers comment on and critique one other's work, correcting the most anatomically implausible details and discussing the ins and outs and ins and outs of possible scenarios at breathless length.

Not all fan fiction is filthy, but a great deal of what makes the enormous volume of dirty short fandom stories out there on the internet so exciting is that it's a unique way for readers to re-occupy a text, to rewrite anhedonic, sexless sagas like Harry Potter or actively disturbing chastity propaganda like Twilight with all the bonking and bodily fluids back in. Dirty fanfiction existed before the internet, but online forums have allowed enormous communities of antsy fifteen-year-old girls to crowdsource the education their classmates are getting from RedTube. It was in one of those communities, written largely by women, largely for women, that Fifty Shades emerged, and that fact probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why it works so damn well as what it is. Which, to reiterate, is porn. For women. To masturbate to. Horrifying, I know, but I suggest we all get used to the idea.

[1] "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" is not a phrase I'm going to be able to burn out of my brain any time soon.

[2] For more on this theme, visit the absolutely genius indifferent cats in amateur porn tumblr, which just goes to show that the oceans of human time lost in the lonely, backlit wank-alleys of the internet have not been entirely wasted. If you're under 18, get someone who isn't to Google it for you.

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

Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)
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“All four of us vomited in the library”: Bobby Seagull on life as a University Challenge icon

In an age of attacking the elites, why have British audiences started making cult figures out of University Challenge contestants?

“BOBBY SEAGULL HAS REPLIED TO LOTS OF MY TWEETS!!!!!” cried a lovestruck fan on Twitter earlier this month, punctuated with three red hearts. It was the semi-final of University Challenge at the end of March, and two team captains who had become cult figures were going head-to-head.

One was Eric Monkman of Wolfson College, Cambridge, a bespectacled Canadian with a uniquely intense way of answering questions. His competitor was Bobby Seagull, the whimsically-named and endlessly jovial captain of Emmanuel College, also of Cambridge – “the happiest University Challenge contestant ever”, according to the BBC, and declared “The cult hero of University Challengeby The Times.


Emmanuel College University Challenge team. Bobby Seagull sits second from the right. Photo: BBC

Over the course of BBC 2’s ten-month tournament, these two competitors became unlikely icons, their geeky “bromance” (they’d been friends as students for years) gaining an excitable online following.

“Eric, you and Bobby are indubitably the loveliest, most team-oriented people ever to appear on #UniversityChallenge and we love you!” one tweeter breathed. “I’m sure you both have serious career ambitions but WE WANT TO SEE THE BUDDY MOVIE” demanded another.

And it looks like that wish could be fulfilled. Seagull has barely left our screens since he was defeated by his nemesis and chum in the semi-final. I meet him looking dazed but delighted in the bustling courtyard of BBC’s New Broadcasting House. It is the morning after the University Challenge final, during which the triumph of Oxford’s Balliol College team was overshadowed by an outpouring of love and lament for runners-up Seagull and Monkman.

Seagull is a smile in a suit. A compact figure and nattily dressed, he wears a grey blazer, pink shirt, white pink-striped tie, ocean blue chinos and brown leather shoes – fresh from doing a round of BBC morning shows.

He carries a Cambridge crest-emblazoned overnight bag almost as big as he is. He caught the 5.45am train this morning to London from Cambridge, where he teaches maths at a local state school. Remarkably youthful-looking at 33, he gets mistaken for a pupil in school if he doesn’t keep his facial hair – a groomed moustache and beard.

We sit down for a coffee, and he commands the whole café with his garrulous anecdotes. “I got a question in my first round horribly wrong, when they asked for a Dickens book and I ended up making up a book called Little Miss Dorrit,” he hoots. “There were tweets saying I should be taken out of Cambridge! In the last few years, we’ve seen Twitter definitely develop a relationship with contestants. Eric and I have taken it in good humour. We joke about ourselves. I think that’s endeared us to the public.”

Seagull’s personality – “hammy, chatty, gregarious”, in his words – and intellect now have him lined up for other quiz shows and potentially as a presenter on a new TV programme about maths.

“I grew up with gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see”

Seagull started life on a council estate in East Ham, east London, which he describes as “rough, difficult” – a place with “gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see” that was a 40-minute walk from the nearest shop. Born to immigrant parents who left Kerala in south India for London in the late Seventies, Seagull was the second of four brothers. “Two rooms, two bunkbeds”, is how describes his family home.

“This sounds like I’m playing the fiddle now,” he groans. “In my family we were quite lucky; we had a really strong family unit. But for a lot of people there, it wasn’t an easy path of growing up.”

Seagull’s father got a job as an IT consultant and his family eventually moved into their own home in East Ham. Seagull puts his grasp of general knowledge down to his parents, whose support of their sons’ education would often lead them to spending money meant for groceries on second-hand books.

“All of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy”

Every Saturday, his father would take them to the local library and they would read books for four or five hours – treated with listening to the football scores if they behaved well (Seagull is a big West Ham fan).

“There was one amusing time when I think we had food poisoning. First, one of my siblings vomited in the library,” he giggles. “And then the next one five minutes later, the next one ten minutes later, so I think all four of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy!”


Bobby Seagull in Cambridge. Photo: Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)

Still, Seagull had only ever watched a few minutes of University Challenge before he applied for his college team and got a place on the show. “Now, if I have kids at some stage, they are going to watch this show from the age of five, and they’re going to win it!” he cries. “I won’t tell them I was on it, I’ll just make them watch it casually and if they get something right, I’ll chuck them a biscuit – Pavlovian condition them to get the right answers. So maybe in 30 years there’ll be a Seagull lifting the trophy.”

When he was 15, Seagull found an advert for scholarships to Eton in a copy of The Times. It asked: “Are you are bright boy?” he recalls, while struggling to open the plastic pot of granola he’s having for breakfast. “I’m really bad at practical things,” he pleads. Eventually, I open it for him.

“People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge; they support anyone else”

He left his London state school, where former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw was headteacher, and started at Eton when he was 16. Just like everything else he’s done, he loved it. A contemporary of Prince Harry and Eddie Redmayne, Seagull was perhaps destined for such an unusual journey – after all, his namesake is Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the eponymous character of Richard Bach’s pseudo-philosophical Seventies novella. His father loved the book, and gave two of his sons the surname.

“In this book, the seagulls eat, sleep, catch fish; a monotonous routine. Jonathan Livingstone thought there must be a greater purpose to life. And he tried to inspire others to fly,” Seagull beams. “The weird thing is that my life is following that path in terms of I think my passion is numbers and I want to encourage a love of education.”

So he decided to go into teaching, and is also about to begin studying for an education PhD at Cambridge. This was after a few years working in the city as a banker and then an accountant. He was a trader at Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008; he saw trouble brewing in the firm when it began to stop stocking the stationery cupboard, and took action. He had £200 on his vending machine allowance and didn’t want it going to waste if the company went under, so he spent it all on chocolate bars just before the crash.

“We’re just sort of normal people, relatable. Maybe a bit eccentric”

“I think we’re still in a country where people do look at the liberal elite, the city, the top professional institutions, MPs, Oxbridge, and there’s a sort of us-against-them mentality,” he reflects, looking mildly less euphoric than usual. “People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge on University Challenge; they support anyone else.

“But this year, because of me and my friend Eric, they actually think, ‘we really like the way you’re just sort of normal people, relatable’,” he says. “Maybe a bit eccentric, but likeable people who they would like to have a conversation with. That's given me a great sense of satisfaction. In the modern world, things are changing all the time. Society, Brexit, we’re constantly changing. But University Challenge gives us that familiarity.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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