If that’s the answer, what’s the question?


SO, THIS WEEKEND just past, there were some house-guests, briefly here in London for a big family shindig. Great larks or what they, being Irish, would call gallery. Frocks. Booze. Practical jokes. Pool (with cues not swimsuits). Laughing. Shouting. Etc.

Weddings – for this was the nature of the shindig – are famously productive of peculiar and mildly unnerving moments. Obviously, it is something to do with accumulated tension and excessive emotion and disinhibition (and booze). Generally, they are nothing to worry about and should probably not be subjected to anything approaching scrutiny. Sometimes, though, you do find yourself wondering: What? What? What did he mean by that?

And so it was when the man who is married to the sister of the man with whom I live told me that something I had said previously in the day had stuck in his mind and that he needed to ask me a question. Sure, I said. Go ahead. Oh God no, he said. Not in front of people. It’s personal. Now: I had said a lot of things previously on that particular day. I had said, for example, we don’t know where we’re going and if we don’t leave now don’t all come crying to me when we miss your cousin’s wedding. I had said, God alone knows if I can get through a whole day of drinking and family without smoking. I had said, sometimes being an only child makes for a simpler life. I had also, I think, read bits of the paper out in a half-aloud voice over breakfast that morning. I had filled a slight longueur with a conversation about mortgage rates. Worst of all, I suspect I had indulged one of my admittedly annoying traits, which is to deconstruct something that people are perfectly happy not thinking particularly seriously about right at that moment and then subject it to a feminist analysis. I feel there may have been such a moment, earlier on that day, concerning high heels.

Next week, Alex Clark on the semiotic of Loboutin red.

But you see my problem. It could have been anything. And now he wouldn’t say. Not only that. He never did. I asked, he laughed and pointed to the assembled company. I asked again. He looked mysterious. Eventually I accused him of attention-seeking, but that was pure petulance on my behalf. Then he got on a plane and went home.

Left alone, I couldn’t settle for wondering what the question was. So eventually, I came up with my own, ranging from the personal to the political, the small to the huge. If you are out there, my reluctant interrogator, tell me if I’ve got it right. Tweet me! No one will notice there.

Q: I see that everyone’s talking about sockpuppets. I thought that meant Shari Lewis and Lambchop, but that just doesn’t seem to make sense. What’s it all about?

A: Sockpuppets are rotten cheats who pretend to be someone else so that they can do wrong things, like saying that they’re great, or that other people are useless. Often both! A good and rather topical example is writers, who might say, of another writer’s book: “Tedious bilge. Appalling characterisation. Got name of rare butterfly wrong on page 222. I ended up having to leave the country, I was so bored.” But, under their own book, they might say: “Towering work of intellect and imagination. So brilliant that I am actually never going to read another book again, for fear of being disappointed.”  Oh: when I say “say,” I mean write, online. But the thing is, it usually ends up with them having to say they’re very, very sorry indeed. Now, I’m glad you asked about this, because I myself am guilty – not of sockpuppetry but of suggesting that it might be a bit of a brouhaha over nothing. Not, of course, because it isn’t wrong, but because it didn’t seem like quite the very worst thing you could do. In any case, I have now learnt that that really gets up people’s noses. So, leaving flippancy aside for a moment, I take it back. I see that it’s all very well saying that something that hasn’t happened to you isn’t very important.

That's RJ Ellory for you. Not Lambchop, who would write better (and more honest) reviews.

Q: Thanks a lot. I think I understand. But I have another problem. Now everyone’s talking about vaginas! WTF?

A:  Oh wow. I really wish you hadn’t asked that. The whole vagina situation is problematic. It’s now way beyond a double-bind; in fact, we now look back at triple-binds with nostalgia. Just briefly: it is Naomi Wolf’s intention to help us (all of us, I suppose, but primarily women) to understand the connection between a woman’s mind and her vagina. This affects many aspects of life, including sexual pleasure and sexual trauma. Now: it would be fair to say Wolf’s book has not met with universal approbation, and it would also be fair to say that two particular parts of it have attracted especial attention. One is the part in which she explains how she rectified her own malfunctioning orgasm; the other is the part in which a (male) friend upset her by making pasta in the shape of vaginas and calling them cuntini. (Although in fact, on a UK radio show, I believe she explained that it was the accompanying salmon that upset her more, because it implied a repulsive connection between women’s sexual organs and fish.) But where does this leave those of us who have yet to read the book? Put off by the sound of someone writing nonsense about our bodies, or enraged that even the act of writing about a woman writing about vaginas seems to slide quickly into wanting her to shut up about them?

We don't think she calls it her froo-froo.

Q: You say you’re a high-flying journalist, but you’re always in the pub or watching television. How does that stack up?

A: Mine not to reason why, my friend. All I can say is that the muse moves in mysterious ways, and that it is not given to us to know where and why inspiration or research opportunities will present themselves. No: you mayn’t switch channels. I’m watching Cheaters for work.

Q: Ah: Cheaters. That brings me on to my next question. Do you think it can survive without Joey Greco?

Joey Greco, the "straight face."

A: Oh man, I don’t know! I didn’t think it could survive without Tommy Habib, and look how wrong I was. But I must be truthful: it seems unlikely that another “host” can produce such perfect more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger moralising when he surprises someone up to no good. Or keep such a straight face when he uses words such as “detectives”, “operatives” and “evidence” to describe his activities. But a question often begets a question. Mine is this: why, adulterers of America, do you insist on leaving the doors to your condos unlocked when you are philandering? And another: have you not yet figured out that you should really avoid the car-parks of large out-of-town fast-food establishments? Those Cheaters guys practically live there!

Q: What is the capital of Malawi?

A: Lilongwe. Only a fool would think it’s Blantyre.

Q: What has three legs, lives in Philadephia and it never rain but it pours?

A: Nice one, Groucho!

Q: How much deeper would the ocean be there weren’t any sponges?

A: Don’t waste my time.

Q: Do you know what that one weird old trick that reduces belly fat is?

A: I don’t! I really wish I did. I’m often extremely tempted to click on those little boxes that pop up all over the internet, because I reckon it’s something a lot of people would like to know the answer to. Imagine if I found out, then subtly changed a few of the words round so it looked like my idea, and then made my fortune! Sadly, I’m always held back by the fear that there’s no real trick and that it’s some far more cynical ploy to put clear blue sky between me and my credit card details. It’s that lack of adventure and entrepreneurialism that has prevented me from becoming a sort of female Richard Branson.

Q: Do you know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow?

A: Ah! Now I feel my crystal ball vibrating far more promisingly. I predict that we will wake tender of head and liverish of tummy, wondering why we had that strange blue cocktail so late on in the evening and whether that lady with the spectacular hat overheard what we were saying about her. Wait! There is more! I predict that we will venture out in search of coffee and nourishing food but that before we find it we will notice a makeshift sign with the words “Second-hand vinyl fair” on it and we will follow that sign and not in fact return home, nor be supplied with coffee or breakfast, for many, many hours. Although we will have acquired one copy of “Late At Night,” an early track by Gregory Isaacs recorded under the unlikely pseudonym of William Shakespeare and put out on the United Songs label. That is my prediction. And about these matters I am rarely wrong.

About Alex Clark

Alex Clark is a freelance journalist living in London, writing about books, arts, football and a whole host of other things for papers such as The Guardian and The Observer. She is also editor at large of Union Books and the former editor of Granta.
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