Sex, the city and the Dona Juanas

Predatory males inspired great art. Their female counterparts don't

My friend Rupert confessed that the flame-haired American girl, who used to go out with a friend of his, scared him. The basement club in Soho was, as they all are, overcrowded, noisy and hot. The girl introduced herself, then said she wanted to leave. Rupe, a little slow on the clues that some women give, said: Goodbye then. No, she said, I want you to walk me out. I can't go by myself. Without asking why a grown woman was incapable of finding a taxi, he politely walked her upstairs and flagged the first passing cab.

Well, Rupert? the Flamer asked him. Well what? Well, aren't you going to see me home? Rupe, a kindly soul, did not particularly want to leave. Yet, because she prevailed on his chivalric sentiments, he got into the car with her. When they arrived, she insisted he walk her to her door. It got worse, but I shall now digress and return later to Rupert's sorry saga.

For centuries, great art has come from the figure of the predatory male. The archetype is stamped on world myth, literature, art and music. Since the Enlightenment, he has most often taken the form of Don Juan, who recurs in books and on stage more often than any other fictional character. From the time of his debut in El Burlador de Sevilla by the monk Tirso de Molina in 1630, the heroic Don Juan has seduced women, duelled with their husbands and fathers and mocked the avenging stone statue that dragged him down to perdition. Moliere, Goldoni, Byron, Baudelaire, the elder Dumas, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Edmond de Rostand and Bernard Shaw, among others, have all wrestled with the Don.

His epic conquests made him an operatic hero. He had already appeared in seven operas, both seria and buffa, by the time Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte produced the immortal dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni. Richard Strauss, Eugene Gossens and other composers cast him as protagonist, as did more playwrights.

"Every age gets the Don Juan it deserves," Marina Warner wrote, aptly, in 1990. This degraded age is giving us a new Don Juan, but the role of serial seducer has been taken by a Dona Juana - the kind of woman featured in Sex and the City, the American television series about single women in New York.

Dona Juana can't carry it off. The modern, urban female predator has achieved no art, but she's generating some trash novels and mountains of journalism, some good, some pathetic. Many excellent women journalists, who might otherwise have become latter-day Martha Gellhorns or Marguerite Higginses, have turned away from covering the world to writing about their genitals. Zoe Heller, a sublime writer of profiles in the Lyn Barber mould, was one of the first women forced by a male editor to turn her gaze from the world around her to her own experience of love, for which read sex. Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones's Diary and Kate Morris of the Single Girl's Diary in London and Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City in New York portray believable sex-hungry, lonely females.

Yet the real women on whom they accurately base these characters are not convincing, I suspect, because they don't believe in themselves and their tawdry lives.

Don Juan with his effortless self- confidence congratulated himself on mounting castle walls in order to mount a recalcitrant female. Where is the challenge for a girl to get laid in New York? No stratagem, no story. Just repetition.

Who can take seriously a character saying, as one does in the televised version of Candace Bushnell's column, "We're not dating. It's a fuck thing"? Or, "I've been fucked every way you can be fucked"? These characters are not serious, not even interesting, certainly not funny. With that type of woman, romance, with its necessary belief in an ideal, is impossible. Men cannot seduce women who knock them down and beat them to the floor. Don Juan today would try his luck in Afghanistan, risking a Taliban execution, to bed a rare beauty rather than wait to be picked up in the Bowery Bar by a PR girl.

It somehow devalues the currency, alas, when everyone is at it, the lower orders, women and, sadly these days, children. And worse, children with their teachers and uncles. Guiltless sex no longer challenges convention; it is convention.

Bushnell seems to understand the limits of her social observation, that the subject matter cannot of its nature become art. She writes, in the collection of her New York Observer pieces, "No one has breakfast at Tiffany's, and no one has affairs to remember - instead, we have breakfast at 7 am and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. How did we get into this mess?"

Better to ask how we get out of it. The mess is dull. Bushnell's women cavort aimlessly in New York, trying different sex games to see which they can win. When they lose, they move on. There is no reflection, no despair, no consequence of any action. The tragedy is that nothing in their lives is tragic.

When Don Giovanni seduced a woman, the gates of hell opened to receive him. Casanova, the great lover whom Lorenzo da Ponte consulted in Venice when he wrote the libretto of Don Giovanni, knew and expressed beautifully in his memoirs the consequences of his many seductions: illegitimate children, the dreaded pox, broken hearts, the passionate fear of being abandoned by the women he loved and the joy of achieving love.

Back to Rupert on that night from which he may never recover. When the taxi reached the woman's flat, she led him upstairs and gave him a drink. He gulped it and made to leave. No, you can't leave yet. There's something in the bedroom I want you to see. Ever the gentleman, he made an unconvincing excuse and went for the door. She followed. He ran down the stairs. She ran after. On the pavement outside, he thought he was free. Yet she was there, holding open her front door and calling to him: Won't you just come up and fuck me? Then you can go.

Is this the state to which these women have reduced the art of seduction?

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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