If you've come this far, you don't need me blathering on with stuff you already know. Enjoy the read.
But, if you missed the start, here's the link to it: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
Chapter 1 appeared on 13 January and following chapters appear each Friday. You can find them via the archive.
Read, enjoy, invite your friends.
I took her down to eat by the river. It was warm enough to sit outside and avoid the inevitable fug of the bar. She experimented, at my suggestion, with scampi and chips in the basket. Confident it would be the real thing and not the usual monkfish, I joined her. A half of bitter quenched my thirst and I persuaded her to a glass of the decent enough house white.
We visited the second-hand bookshop at Bootham Bar where I looked for photography books. She left me to my own devices and set off to explore the musty treasure trove. After a while, browsing, I discovered a volume of Ansel Adams landscapes, reasonably priced and went in search of Faith. She was sitting on the floor, displaying her knickers to the world, and reading a tatty paperback.
‘You’re not a student, Faith. You’ll get muck on your skirt sitting down there.’
She looked guilty, like a child caught with a hand in the cake tin, and struggled to get up. I helped her and made her turn so I could brush dust from her seat. Freed from the detritus of the shop floor, that bottom was tempting and I could not resist administering a very gentle tap.
‘Don’t you dare…’
But she saw my face and her quick anger dissolved into a grin at some private joke she wouldn’t share. She was chuckling as we went down to the till.
‘Word of advice, Faith. Tights outside knickers or you’ll get cystitis.’
She frowned, understood the significance, blushed and then nodded her thanks. She was carrying a large volume, already paid for, wrapped in a brown paper bag.
‘I told Father I might have to pay for dinner today. I said we’d be going to a restaurant and I should pay my share. He was unhappy, but gave me some cash when I reminded him it was yours in the first place.’
We sauntered along the river to spend some time reading on the bank and found a secluded bench under willows and cherry trees not yet in leaf or blossom. Side by side, we sat with the water rippling a few feet from us.
‘It’s not much, but it seems more art than pornography and I thought you might like it. It’s a little “thank you” for today.’ She handed me the brown paper bag and pecked my cheek.
I withdrew the book and was astounded to find a slightly damaged but sumptuously illustrated volume on the nude in art. I flipped through the pages.
‘You don’t like it.’
‘Faith, it’s the most perfect present but I don’t want to embarrass you with the pictures. This is so unexpected and so undeserved.’
‘I’m amazed you’d buy me, of all things, a book of nudes. I thought you were offended by all images of nudity and didn’t know the difference between pornography and art.’
‘I’ve a lot to learn, Leigh. My life and education have been in the hands of one man. I’m growing more certain with each passing day, each passing hour, that Father’s mistaken about the world. Today’s been more of an eye opener than anything that’s ever happened to me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to put myself exclusively into the hands of another man, no matter how wonderful, kind and generous he may be.’
‘Thank you, Faith.’ What else was I to say?
I opened her gift again and saw she’d written a message on the inner flyleaf. ‘To Leigh, with deep affection and many thanks, Faith.’
‘There’s more to you than meets the eye.’
‘There’s more to everything than is seen by the eye alone. And looking at covers without sampling the content leads to a superficial and misleading understanding of things.’
Forgiving the unintended pomposity, since the comment was aimed more at herself than me, I was struck again by the extraordinary contrast between her knowledge and her intellect. As she came to know more things, so her powers of deduction and her native intelligence realigned her view of the world and of her place within it. It was rather like, I imagined, a parent watching an exceptionally gifted child growing up, except that this was happening much more quickly as Faith’s knowledge caught up with her chronological age.
I recalled my promise to discuss nude photography with her seriously and thought it a perfect opportunity. Neutral ground; public enough to curb our passion and private enough to allow us to speak freely. The book was a perfect introduction. It was almost as if she’d chosen it with this in mind.
‘Look at this, Faith.’ It was The Source by Auguste Ingres; a young woman pouring water from a vessel balanced on her shoulder. ‘What do you think of it?’
She studied the figure for a few moments without apparent embarrassment and I was as surprised as I was pleased by that.
‘It’s an allegory, I imagine. She’s nude and seems to be standing on the surface of the pool, so there’s a hint that she isn’t merely human, perhaps some sort of goddess. And the water from the urn is feeding the pool as if it’s from an everlasting source, which obviously can’t be true, so it’s telling a story.’
‘Amazing. Very perceptive. But I was really more concerned about your view of the woman herself and the way she’s displayed.’
‘Well, her breasts are openly displayed but she has no genitalia and no pubic hair, just a suggestion of shadow, so she can’t be a real woman.’
‘Idealized. She represents an idea of female beauty that was prevalent at the time the painting was made.’
‘Didn’t women have pubic hair in those days?’
I flipped through and found an illustration of Olympia by Edouard Manet. ‘And what about this one?’
‘She’s lying on a bed but she’s got shoes on, so I think there’s a sexual content. A bit like some of the shots you’ve taken of Abby, I suppose.’
I let that go, but it did make me think.
‘Her hand’s covering her genital area so we can’t see it, but I don’t think that’s for modesty. I think she’s trying to be mysterious. Does hiding it like that really make it more attractive to men?’
I found Adam and Eve by Jan Mabuse Gosseart. ‘This one?’
She studied the picture of the pair with the serpent and the apple in the garden. ‘The Garden of Eden, of course. Adam seems to have no penis and his testicles are hidden behind what could be leaves or stylised pubic hair. Eve’s genital area is hairless but there’s a hint of a cleft there, so she’s a real woman. The bodies are both imperfect and more human.’
I flipped and found Renoir’s Bather Adjusting Her Hair. ‘And this?’
‘The fabric’s covering just enough to disguise her vaginal opening, but she would have to be hairless. Why are they all…?’
‘Couple more and I’ll make my point.’ I found Delacroix’s Woman Caressing a Parrot.
She looked at the painting for a moment. ‘The pose hides her genitalia. We can see her breasts and her build makes her look like a real woman.’
‘Last one.’ I flipped through and eventually found what I sought. Eugene Lacadre’s La Reveil served my purpose with the woman lying half on her side and facing the viewer, completely unadorned.
Faith scrutinized the image. ‘She’s another one with breasts but no genitalia at all. Not a real woman, but another of those so-called idealised beauties. She seems to be inviting sex without the means to partake.’
I closed the book. ‘You’ve come a hell of a long way in a few weeks, Faith. A month ago, you couldn’t have looked at those without blushing. Now, you’re able to discuss them with more objectivity than most people. I’m amazed and proud.
‘The point I was trying to illustrate, though, is that almost all artists, regardless of their era, have portrayed women as hairless and without sexual organs. Breasts have always been acceptable and have actually replaced the orifice as the source of sexuality, regardless of their primary function of feeding. Germaine Greer makes the same point. Women are portrayed as hairless and sexless. Our ideal of female beauty now demands they are like that. It’s that image I would like to banish.’
‘But your pictures show women hiding their genitalia behind knickers or in miniskirts or other clothes. Isn’t that what you say you’re trying to do away with? Isn’t it the whole woman you want to portray, the way you sometimes have with Abby, when she takes off all her clothes, even her shoes?’
‘I’d love to be able always to picture women as they are. With or without pubic hair but always with the female essential of vulva to demonstrate their sex. I’d like not to have to use pose to hide their sexual organs, though sometimes a pose excludes them naturally. I’d love to do this, but, for the moment, I can’t.
‘I know, and bear in mind I’m no expert on the subject, of only two works of art produced before the turn of this century that give the woman sexual parts, apart from the Gosseart Eve with her hint of an entrance. One is El Greco’s sculpture of Venus, an ungainly piece that nevertheless has the honesty to display her vulva. The other is Goya’s Nude Maja where the openly sexual woman lying on a bed has a shadow of pubic hair above her closed thighs.’
‘What about men? I’ve seen a lot of pictures, as you selected your samples, of men and most of them showed their sexual parts completely.’
‘I know. Odd, isn’t it? There could be all sorts of reasons for the difference of approach. But you’re right about that difference.’
‘Doesn’t that mean that artists have always been dishonest in their portrayal of women?’
‘Exactly, though they mostly reflected the wishes and values of their patrons, usually men of the church, and the societies in which they lived. I’d like to reverse that dishonesty by portraying them the way they are. Women have sexual organs and pubic hair; I’d like to portray them that way. I don’t want to idealize them. I want to celebrate them as they are.’
‘But you only use the most perfect physical specimens you can find. Isn’t that also dishonest?’
‘The camera’s less forgiving than the eye, Faith. And more selective. Place a woman with generous thighs in front of a camera and all you see are fat thighs. The camera actually draws attention to them. That’s not fair on her or on women in general. I choose the best I can find because that way I can celebrate female beauty more fully. I don’t want to show the failures of age, the results of bad diet and lack of exercise, the effects of starvation. I want to show woman as an object of beauty. Naturally, I select the best examples. But I don’t idealize. I don’t pose them so they’re sexless or unattainable. I show them as women, as sexual, desirable, beautiful creations. And, once I’ve built a reputation in publishing, I intend to take a more radical position; I want to go along the route of Bill Brandt or Edward Weston. They won’t mean anything to you, Faith, but they portrayed women exactly as they saw them, celebrated their nude bodies in candid poses and without hiding their femininity. That’s what I want to do. Am I wrong to do that?’
‘Father would say you are. He believes we should cover our bodies so that men won’t be tempted to lust after our flesh.’
‘You believe in God, don’t you?’
‘And God created you and all the other living creatures on the planet?’
‘God created everything.’
‘Even better. God created you. God created photography. God created the ability to see and conceptualise and judge. Do you think God is ashamed of any of these creations?’
‘God’s perfect. Everything God creates is perfect.’
‘So, it’s a huge insult to God to hide the creations and make them appear shameful or undesirable, don’t you think?’
She was silent, considering what some would call a specious proposition.
‘I think that what I do, in celebrating the beauty of women, is a form of homage to God. I celebrate creation. I hold it up exactly as it is and declare it beautiful. Is that wrong?’
‘No. But it can be misinterpreted. Some men see your picture of a naked woman and believe she represents all women. Your picture sometimes invites sex with that woman and some men see that invitation as universal. Your woman wants you to have sex with her, therefore all women want all men to have sex with them. That’s the danger.’
‘God, but your perceptive. But not many of my pictures invite sex, only those where such an invitation is appropriate. In any case, that aspect’s not my fault. I’m not responsible for how people view my work. I can only produce the pictures and hope they’ll be viewed in the same way as they’re made. If men misuse my images I’m sorry, but I can’t stop them. I can avoid suggestiveness and explicit sexual content but I can’t make my images of women asexual. That’d be a denial of everything I believe and it’d be dishonest. Any depiction of a naked human being must contain a sexual element. I take pictures of women because I’m a man and I love women as sexual creatures and as beings who attract my eye as an artist. I’ve no interest in the bodies of men so I don’t take pictures of them, though I’d use the same techniques and processes if I did.’
‘Thanks, Leigh. For treating me like a mature woman and explaining what you’re about. I don’t know whether you’re right or wrong. I’ve so much to learn and I’m still very much the child of Father. I don’t know if my attitudes come from my own feelings or from what Father has told me. But I respect your point of view and I’ll try not to make judgements in future. You clearly believe what you’re doing is right and honest and generally to the good. I’ll need more time before I’ll know whether I agree with you.’
‘Faith, you’re a singular young woman. I’m in serious danger of becoming very fond of you. Thank you for the book and the opportunity to discuss our differences. If nothing else comes from today, at least we understand each other better.’
‘Nothing else? Leigh, you’ve changed me from a dowdy girl to a confident woman today. Thank you.’
She kissed my cheek again and I wanted so much to take her in my arms and embrace her. But she wasn’t yet ready for that and I could wait. We were silent for a while, both mulling over what we’d said and heard. I settled down to take a more leisurely look at the book, now I knew the content wouldn’t offend her, and left Faith to her musing.
She turned to her paperback whilst I was reading and, intrigued to know what she’d bought herself, I tried to look at the front cover. To my surprise, she resisted and placed her hands over it. My curiosity was thoroughly aroused.
‘Will you do something for me?’
‘Depends what it is.’
Her directness and literal approach still surprised me.
‘I’d like to take some pictures of you, standing over by the river.’
‘With or without my clothes?’
‘I’d not expect even a seasoned model to stand out here stark naked, Faith.’
Her little smile told me she was learning to pull my leg. I stuck out my tongue and she grinned at her success and placed her book, open and cover down, on the bench before she wandered toward the edge of the river. I sneaked a quick look at the title whilst her back was turned and had just replaced the book when she spun round. It was impossible to tell whether she’d caught me peeping.
She was placed ideally within the frame and I took several shots from the seat and then from different viewpoints before I signalled I was done. We both returned to the bench and she sat very close to me so that we touched along one side.
‘Is that what drives you to ask women to take off their clothes?’
My face must have shown my perplexity.
‘Your incorrigible, unquenchable curiosity. Is that what makes you want to see what they look like in the flesh?’
‘And what do you think of my choice of book, now you’ve seen it?’
‘Will you be taking this work of the devil back home with you?’ As soon as I said it, I knew it was a mistake. ‘You don’t have to. You can keep it at Longhouse.’ That seemed to relieve her a little but I’d undoubtedly cast a shadow.
‘I’m trying to understand the other point of view, Leigh.’ She said nothing else about the first book she’d ever bought herself, “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell, but her sadness and seriousness made me realize how brave she’d been to select it.
I stood and held out my hand to help her to her feet. She rose reluctantly as if unsure what I might do. My embrace of pure affection, which was what I felt at that moment, put paid to any doubts and she hugged me gratefully in return. ‘Right, let’s go and take in a museum or Clifford’s Tower or some of the other shops, or the library. Whatever you wish.’
We walked part of the ancient walls, spent time in the museum, visited The Shambles and Goodramgate. She was full of wonder and interest in everything we saw, reawakening my own enthusiasm. Full of questions that I tried to answer with as much information as I could in an attempt to boost her knowledge and give her a wider appreciation of the world.
‘Are you really as wise as you seem, Leigh, or can you just string together words and thoughts in a way that makes what you say seem intelligent and considered?’
I was flummoxed by her question. Was she complimenting me, insulting me? I turned and saw that twinkle in her gorgeous dark eyes and knew I’d been had again. I just laughed and embraced her, held her close and found she held me with affection. I’d never felt so natural, so right, with any other woman. ‘God, but you’re amazing, Faith.’
She pulled a little face at my mild blasphemy but let it go and showed her pleasure at my remark. ‘You’re really quite extraordinary yourself, Leigh.’
Had we been somewhere less public, I swear she would have kissed me properly. As it was, her willingness to touch and be touched had surprised me as it had grown during the day. She was a different woman from the frowsy, uncertain girl I’d driven out of the Dale that morning.
Once more, we trekked to the car park, this time to deposit our books and pick up her dress.
‘Are we off back, now?’
‘Why? Had enough?’
‘Is there more?’
‘If you wish.’
‘I don’t want today to end, Leigh, ever.’
Neither did I and, in a way, that was a first for me. ‘If we’re to eat beforehand, we’d best find somewhere now. If you want to eat afterwards, we can find a little wine bar for the moment for a light snack, but we’ll be eating very late if we do it that way.’
‘Before what, Leigh?’
‘Oh, didn’t I mention it? I’ve got tickets for “Godspell”.’
She looked blank, of course.
‘The theatre. It’s a musical show; it’s about Christ, so I’m not sure it’ll be all it should for your first theatre experience, but that’s what’s on, so that’s what I’ve booked.’
‘A musical show about Jesus? I don’t understand. Is it in the Minster?’
‘The theatre. It’s a place where people go to watch all sorts of shows, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes bawdy, sometimes scary. This time it happens to be a musical. Songs, dance, a story; all celebrating the life of Christ. Willing to give it a go?’
‘Father would be apoplectic.’
She smiled mischievously. ‘All the more reason to do it.’
I grasped her hands and swung her round until she pleaded, laughing, that I stop.
She nodded. I picked up the bag containing her new dress and we set off for the restaurant where I had a table booked.
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