WILL SELF

The award-win­ning writer’s monthly anatom­i­cal check-up con­sid­ers mus­cles

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

“What body part would you like me to cover this month?” I asked the ed­i­tor of Esquire, with not a trace of in­nu­endo, as we sat eat­ing the lean­est of cui­sine in a midrange Ja­panese restau­rant called Taro, in Lon­don’s Soho. And hav­ing painfully torn those of his shoul­der and pec­toral re­gion only re­cently, Alex winc­ingly replied, “Mus­cles.”

Just then, Mr Taro him­self ar­rived at our ta­ble — I of­ten eat there, but I’d never met him be­fore. “The car­toon smi­ley Ja­panese face-car­i­ca­ture on the menu, that’s you?” Mr Taro smiled and bobbed his smi­ley head-car­i­ca­ture.

“And so, you’re Mr… Taro?” Mr Taro bobbed some more, and be­gan telling us about a new branch he’d opened in Bal­ham but I was al­ready bob­bing away, tens­ing and re­lax­ing along a long trapez­ius of a mem­ory, back to that Golden Age, when I would stand in front of the mir­rored bath­room cab­i­net, con­tort­ing my right arm into all sorts of un­nat­u­ral po­si­tions so as to raise up the mea­gre quail’s-egg-sized bulges of my bi­cep and tri­ceps.

In truth, I’m do­ing it still — hav­ing long since re­alised that the pur­suit of a mus­cu­lar body is a fool’s er­rand to ri­val Bri­tain’s in­volve­ment in the Iraq War: no, all you re­quire is one, hefty, tat­tooed arm — that you can ca­su­ally in­tro­duce on to bar top, or into the boudoir. “A pint of Davy’s Old Wal­lop over here,” you cry, and the horny-faced sons and daugh­ters of toil stop their ru­ral bur­ring to re­gard the stranger in their midst; but, sight­ing The Arm, they’re as­suaged; the Davy’s Old Wal­lop ar­rives post-haste. It’s the same in the fave­las of Rio, the ban­lieues of Paris and the

shanty towns of Dhaka: all you need to ward off po­ten­tial blows is The Arm. As for the boudoir, women of dis­cre­tion — in my not in­con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence — view ex­ces­sive mus­cle as a pos­i­tive turn-off; nev­er­the­less, The Arm es­tab­lishes that you aren’t a com­plete mil­que­toast, which is an even more de­cided one.

Be­sides, given soundish health, a de­cent diet, not too much chem­i­cally in­duced in­tox­i­ca­tion, and a rea­son­able amount of ex­er­cise, the av­er­age male body is a per­fectly well-sculpted chunk of mus­cle. We have about twice the mus­cle-to-fat ra­tio of our gen­tle sis­ters and it must be this that we find quite so cud­dly about them. In my oc­ca­sional bi-cu­ri­ous for­ays, what ap­pears to me most dif­fer­ent about male bod­ies is this full-body-sinew-suit, not the ob­vi­ously dan­gling… mod­i­fier. Any­hoo, by not both­er­ing to pur­sue mus­cle, I’ve been freed up to en­joy my body as a non-com­modi­tised phe­nom­e­non — a cre­ation of my en­gage­ment with the world, rather than by my reg­i­men­ta­tion in that mon­strous tread­mill of late cap­i­tal­ism: the gym.

I’ve only ever vis­ited a gym with the in­ten­tion of us­ing its equip­ment one time in my life. (I dis­count the bizarre night when, check­ing late into the Ho­tel du Vin & Bistro in Birm­ing­ham, the aged night man fawn­ingly in­formed me I’d been, “Up­graded to the West­more­land Suite, sir.” And when I taxed him as to its ad­van­tages, he fawned on: “It’s got a gym, sir.” In­deed, it did, one equipped with all the Tun­turi bulge-in­duc­ers you could wish for, dis­ported on the gleam­ing tiles of a gi­ant wet room, which was con­nected to an equally hangar-sized bed­room by a wind tun­nel of a cor­ri­dor. The bed was vast and frigid — I found a sin­gle, tightly coiled pu­bic hair trapped be­tween the tar­pau­lin-sized cov­ers; it had the gauge and ten­sil­ity of 12 amp fuse wire.) And, af­ter com­plet­ing the grim in­duc­tion, and watch­ing a few men grunt and groan as if they were shit­ting out glob­al­i­sa­tion it­self, re­solved never to go again.

Con­sider the predica­ment of the mod­ern of­fice-bound worker? Fe­bril­ity is no pre­serve of the poor — it can strike even in the most ex­alted po­si­tions, say that of the es­teemed ed­i­tor of a men’s style mag­a­zine: con­sider his emas­cu­lat­ing go-round — the com­muter crush, the queu­ing, the sit­ting, the dys­pep­sia, the cramped tran­sit to the Mi­lan menswear shows, more sit­ting, more cramped tran­sit. It’s a per­pet­ual go-round in which the only mus­cles that are stretched are the ones hold­ing his ric­tus of a smile in place. No won­der such an in­di­vid­ual has re­course to a gym, to a per­sonal trainer even. Never mind that he de­liv­ers him­self up to the tor­ments of yet fur­ther con­straint! Never mind that he is, to all in­tents and pur­poses, just an­other pink-cheeked, Ful­ham Road wanker-banker, sub­mit­ting to the rigours of Bri­tish Mil­i­tary Fit­ness (an oxy­moron if ever there was one).

He craves a pan­ther­ish body to sheathe with his be­spoke suits — he be­lieves strict dis­ci­pline will save him from the apoc­a­lypse. He cy­cles — along with mil­lions of oth­ers — on a road to nowhere that doesn’t ex­ist, and all the while only re­con­firm­ing the in­ex­orable met­ric of time equals money, that makes of his pink and vul­ner­a­ble body a short-lived lux­ury brand: Bilmes®, more akin to the pigskin wal­lets of yes­ter­year than any more hu­man meat pup­pet.

I placed The Arm on the var­nished, blond­wood sur­face of the ta­ble and mus­cled my way back into the con­ver­sa­tion, not­ing as I did that Alex flinched painfully as he handed Mr Taro the menu. “Well, I can tell you one thing for noth­ing, Mr Taro,” I said.

“Oh,” he bobbed. “What is that one thing?” “There isn’t a sor­bet’s chance in Hades you’ll get me down to your Bal­ham branch.”

Mr Taro bobbed off pet­tishly, and I turned to face the poor fel­low, pre­pared for his own good to speak my mind, and give him the sort of psy­chic dis­ci­pline he was so clearly lack­ing. But some­thing in his hang­dog ex­pres­sion stayed my tongue: what good would it do to ad­jure him? The poor fel­low was as sunk deep in his delu­sion as the hu­man bat­ter­ies piled up into tow­ers are in the… ma­trix. No, bet­ter en­cour­age him to aban­don th­ese self-de­feat­ing nos­trums in some other, less egre­gious way.

I’ve only ever vis­ited a gym with the in­ten­tion of us­ing its equip­ment once in my life. And, af­ter com­plet­ing the grim in­duc­tion, and watch­ing a few men grunt and groan as if they were shit­ting out glob­al­i­sa­tion it­self, re­solved never to go again

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