The curse of being called Sharon

Sharon Bolton learned the hard way that people were quick to make judgements about her based on her name, which is why she published her books using her initials. Now, she's had enough.

He could have been six-two, movie-star gorgeous, brilliant of brain and side-splittingly funny; he could have adored me, but I still couldn’t have walked down the aisle with a Kevin (passionate Man United fan), a Darren (climbing his way up the estate-agency ladder), or a Wayne (dreams of breeding pit-bulls). Because after years suffering the stigma of being Sharon, no way was I going to compound the misery by hooking up with what society might perceive to be my ideal mate.

For a few years in the late Sixties, all was well. In the working-class north of England, Sharon was a cool name, more unusual than the Susans (chunky thighs and NHS glasses), Eileens (quiet, reliable, bit dumpy), and Lindas (more time behind the bike sheds than in the classroom) who littered the playground like discarded free-milk bottles. But the Seventies saw a blossoming of Sharons: in TV shows, lampooned in our newspapers. And these Sharons were rather common (to use the parlance of the day), not terribly bright, given to public displays of flesh, possibly a bit loose about the morals. They were the vacuous, uninterested shop-girls, the cheaply dressed bar-maids, the council-estate-dwelling single mothers. The name Sharon became synonymous with a) background, b) character and c) lifestyle. To this day it conjures up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell-suit.

I learned the hard way that people are quick to judge; will jump at the chance of a cheap ego boost at another’s expense. For a shy and rather sensitive girl it became agonising. I was introduced at social gatherings and saw instant judgment forming. Had there been a socially acceptable way of refusing to give my Christian name, I’d have found it. Guess, I could have said. Oh, you think I look like a Camilla? (Horsey type, dirty sense of humour.) How kind. Call me Camilla.(Let’s be honest,though, I’d have sounded like a hooker.)

"I don’t want to talk to any old Sharon," a disgruntled caller once told my secretary, as though I were a species, not an individual.

In an accountancy evening class an Irishman called Roger (lives with his mum, thinks she doesn’t know about his porn collection) asked my name. "And do you dance round handbags in your white stilettos with your mates Tracey and Wendy," he replied upon learning it. WTF! This was an educated man who considered himself intelligent. He wouldn’t have dreamed of being openly racist, blatantly sexist, or making a disparaging remark about a disabled person, but I – on the basis of a choice made years ago by OTHERS - was entirely fair game for his snap judgment and instant derision.

I’ve learned to modify my behaviour so as not to be the Sharon that others expect, at the same time dreaming of the fun-loving extrovert I might have become had I been called India (frightfully posh, rather deliciously bohemian) or Felicity (captain of Trinity College Ladies’ coxed eight). They can misbehave and be considered great gals, but if I get drunk and fall over at a party, well, isn’t it just what you’d expect? In my cash-strapped twenties, I shopped at Austin Reed because Sharons went to River Island. I steered away from bright colours, flouncy fabrics and anything tight, over-compensating for my acquired inferiority complex with sensible, sober suits. Amandas (plays tennis, mixes a stonking Moscow Mule) could wear white, high heels. Sharons had to stick to elegant black courts.

What’s in a name, well-meaning folkwould say. Everything! I wanted to yell back at them. Our names are an integral part of the faces we show to the world. If we’re judged first on outward appearances, we’re assessed next on our names. Change it then, they’d urge, but without considering how difficult it would be to do so.Or how pretentious I’d seem were I suddenly to announcethat I was to be known as Octavia? (Posh names always end in "a", have you noticed that?)

Nobody, I’ve learned, can resist a Sharon and Tracey quip, and I’ve yet to hear a funny one. I’ve met charming, intelligent, amusing women called Tracey and avoided them like suppurating sores because I will not be a part of a real-life Sharon and Tracey.

I’ve never once corrected someone who got my name wrong. Want to call me Sarah? (It’s usually Sarah.) By all means. So flattered you think I look like a Sarah.

So in 2006, when my first book was about to be published, I had qualms. Sacrifice had been described as "a dark, serious, exhilarating thriller". I already knew that men in the UK could be reluctant to buy a book by a female author. Could I honestly expect anyone to buy one written by a Sharon? So on the advice of my UK publishers I chose a sexless anonymity and published my first five books under the semi-pseudonym, S J Bolton. I was happy. I could hide behind a genderless, classless persona and let my creepy, psychological murder-mysteries speak for themselves. 

But you know what, I’m over fifty now and I’ve had enough. Keith Waterhouse, who was responsible for the stigma in the first place, is dead and his stupid prejudice should die with him. The Sharons (and Traceys) of today aren’t vacuous girls in their twenties with perma-tans and X Factor obsessions, they are grown women in their forties and fifties: married, mothers, educated to various degrees and in diverse occupations and I just happen to be one of them.

So here it is, my coming out. My name is Sharon. My books are published (and reviewed favourably) all over the world. They’ve been shortlisted for numerous awards and even won one or two. Above all, they are written for people who believe the quality of the story is more important than the gender, social standing, background or given name of the author.

My husband’s name, by the way? Andrew Charles: posh enough for the both of us.

Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton is published this week (Corgi, £6.99)

 

 

Pauline Quirke, Lesley Joseph and Linda Robson as Sharon, Dorien and Tracey in "Birds of a Feather".
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage