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8 June 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 12:07pm

Proust’s rat fetish, Nigel’s failed foray into pop – and Brexit penetrates the TLS

.A week is a long time in politics. And in literary criticism, for that matter.

By Stig Abell

You find out some funny things reading the Times Literary Supplement. I get to find them out a bit sooner, now that I have become the editor. Did you know, for example, that Proust “needed to watch starving rats fight in a cage in a male brothel in order to achieve orgasm”? Or that Byron’s scandal-filled memoirs were burned by his friends because they were so racy, in what is regarded as the worst crime in literary history? Or that salmon are classed as animals with feelings to be protected in Norway but not in the US (which only cares about warm-blooded animals)? Or that the cycle of misinformation appearing on Wikipedia is called “citogenesis”?

A good example of citogenesis is the claim that the best-selling English language novel of all time is A Tale of Two Cities: the claim cropped up in 2008 and has been repeated endlessly in books and newspapers ever since, despite continual deletion by Wikipedia editors. Nobody knows what the best-selling English novel of all time is, alas.

My ageist hate crime

My quote of the week comes from Martin Amis: “Being inoffensive, and being offended, are now the twin addictions of the culture.” Indisputably, and sadly, true. On Tuesday, I did my regular slot on the Sky newspaper review, where I do try not to be inoffensive. (A paper review is the definition of a burning platform, by the way: this year, we have seen the fall of the Independent and the rise and fall of the New Day; can the print Guardian be far behind?) I offered the unexceptionable opinion that it was likely that old people will settle the EU referendum, because they have little else to do in the day other than vote. On Twitter I am told I should be prosecuted for a “hate crime”.

Just for balance, I should be clear that social media are not just a forum for angry fulminations and abuse. One gentleman invites me to drop in to his house “for a shag” any time I feel like it, noting drily: “From your appearance on the TV you will clearly be the bottom.”

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A coming out at the Globe

Speaking of Bottoms (and gay relations, for that matter), on Wednesday I went to the Globe to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream – an afternoon of Shakespeare, pretending that it was work. The production is broad, exuberant and very funny; certainly an improvement on Russell T Davies’s rather desperate version for the BBC, which I also see in preview that same day. One neat trick is the substitution of Helena for (a male) Helenus as one of the lovers. The play becomes, partly, a battle with his own sexuality for Demetrius and these lines form a rather charmingly poignant moment of coming out:

But, like in sickness, did I loathe
 this food;
But, as in health, come to my
 natural taste,
Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And will for evermore be true to it.

The play was born a motley mash-up of traditions and sources: a bit of Chaucer, some Ovid, a chunk of Greek mythology.  So there is legitimate licence to modernise and manipulate the text. The Globe version is especially forthright in its willingness to change things: Helenus and Hermia burst into a version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”; jokes are made about hipsters from Hoxton. But it is all the jollier for it. Most of the men also disrobe at one point or other (I did not realise that the male thigh was quite so hairy) and the party of schoolgirls to my left seemed to appreciate that, too.

A perfectly puckered British lion

Back to the office, where the EU debate has penetrated even the cloistered halls of the TLS. We asked contributors whether the EU has had any impact on British cultural life or on their work. The responses ranged from the dismissive to the (more common) sense that Brexit would be a triumph for isolationism and intolerance. Axel Scheffler (best known for illustrating The Gruffalo) agreed to provide an EU-themed cartoon for the issue. It comes in: a lion and a unicorn, with those wonderful puckered faces that Scheffler does so well, looking at Britannia and saying: “She’s not going to do it, is she?” It will make a wonderful cover.

Changing plans for Nigel

“She’s not going to do it, is she?” is perhaps the question of the next few weeks. It has been a dispiriting campaign – from Boris falling foul of Godwin’s law (former London mayors and Hitler, eh? Who knew?) to David Cameron heralding the potential advent of the Third World War. There was one moment of levity: the announcement of a Brexit-sponsored pop concert headlined by Alesha Dixon, 5ive and East 17. Except that they soon pulled out when the concepts of Brexit and agit-pop were explained to them. Remind me what East 17’s most famous song is? Ah, yes: “Stay Another Day”.

Rediscovering Modesty Blaise

We are preparing a summer books edition of the TLS, with recommendations about what to take to the beach (it won’t all be Proust in the original French, I promise). I recall those twin holiday phenomena around reading that recur every year: the icy, irrational fear of not taking enough books with you and the pleasure of finding surprise books in your holiday accommodation.

Last year, I discovered in a damp Kent villa a Modesty Blaise novel. I am not sure who now is familiar with Modesty. She is a sort of female James Bond, based on cartoons published in the Guardian in the 1960s. It is the perfect holiday read: pulp thriller, lots of fighting and smoking and love-making (often following hard upon one another) and complicated sexual politics. Treat yourself this summer and take one with you. Half-term is upon us and Brits will search out the prospect of a cooling, sunlit swimming pool, probably somewhere in Europe. Better In than Out, perhaps.

Stig Abell is a former managing editor of  the Sun, now the editor of the TLS

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind