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For this month’s anatom­i­cal check-up, the award-win­ning writer is on his knees

“knees up, mother brown / knees up, mother brown / knees up, knees up, don’t get the breeze up / knees up, mother brown.”

So we sang back in the day, in our lit­tle crib off the Ro­man Road — me nan swig­ging a bot­tle of milk stout, me old man bang­ing out the rhythm on the roof of his sher­bet (sher­bet dab = cab), prepara­tory to get­ting so drunk he’d take it up the Gary (Gary Glit­ter = shit­ter). Oh, it was an in­no­cent era, right enough, when the sight of a shapely knee could drive a young Cock­ney such as my­self to dis­trac­tion. But why? On the face of it, there’s lit­tle less erotic — when it comes to the hu­man body — than the knee; for this is the body part that re­minds us more than any other that we too are a species of me­chan­i­cal pup­pet.

Con­sider the knee; what is it if not a sim­ple hinge? True, the el­bow ex­hibits a sim­i­lar fa­cil­ity, while the hip’s ball-and-socket joint is mim­icked by all sorts of ar­ti­fi­cial mech­a­nisms; yet per­haps be­cause the knee also ex­hibits this mar­ginal ten­dency — some­times ex­posed, more of­ten hid­den — it seems at once strange to us, and ris­i­ble. Think of the ac­tion of pup­pets or other an­droids; para­dox­i­cally, it’s usu­ally their knees that give them away, for, in at­tempt­ing to repli­cate the hu­man gait, they al­ways ap­pear un­canny. Late last year, a video went vi­ral that showed a new Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics ro­bot ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing a back­flip. But it wasn’t the dra­matic ac­tion it­self that I found dis­turbingly hu­man, but the way — once it had re­gained its foot­ing — that the ma­chine stead­ied it­self, with its knees shak­ing. For me, those trem­bling ro­bot knees, marked the true in­cep­tion

of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Af­ter all, who cares whether a ro­bot is self-con­scious if it can en­ter a knob­bly knees com­pe­ti­tion — and win!

Yes, in Bri­tish pop­u­lar cul­ture the hu­man knee is straight­for­wardly laugh­able, and its naked ap­pear­ance her­alds either our ten­dency to self-dep­re­cate (“My knees’re knob­blier than yours!”), or the start of an ine­bri­ated sing-along. True, whether a skirt or dress hem is po­si­tioned above or be­low this site of spe­cial hu­mor­ous in­ter­est re­mains deeply erot­i­cally charged, but this isn’t be­cause of the knee qua knee. Rather, its bony patella not only pro­tects the an­te­rior ar­tic­u­late sur­face of the knee joint, but pro­vides a solid bar­rier to the rov­ing het­ero­sex­ual male gaze. If a hem is above the knee, eyes strain to get up there too; but if be­low, the mes­sage is clear: the very ex­is­tence of these fe­male legs, and what might be be­tween them, be­comes de­bat­able (and rightly so, in our emer­gent, non-bi­nary world). So, it isn’t the fe­male knee it­self that ex­cites us — rather it’s a sort of bill­board, an­nounc­ing the de­lights above and be­yond.

Doubt­less women feel pretty much the same way about male knees, which, up un­til the early Noughties were sel­dom on show, ex­cept in com­pet­i­tive con­texts. A well-flexed male knee on court or pitch can be an ar­rest­ing spec­ta­cle, but for the most part the Bri­tish con­fined their ad­mi­ra­tion of the male knee to its po­ten­tial for knob­bli­ness — the puck­er­ing of its slack and ele­phan­tine der­mis, the pit­ting of its bony pro­tru­sions. In the past, men who won ma­jor knob­bly knees com­pe­ti­tions were of­ten hon­oured by the Prince of Wales, whose own in­fan­tile sense of hu­mour — nour­ished by lis­ten­ing to Spike Mil­li­gan’s The Goon Show, which was full of knee jokes — made him an en­thu­si­as­tic défenseur des genoux. Per­haps it’s this royal war­ranty that led to the in­creas­ing ex­po­sure of male knees we’ve suf­fered in the past 20 years.

And I say “suf­fered” ad­vis­edly, be­cause for men of my gen­er­a­tion, ex­posed knees are al­ways as­so­ci­ated with boy­hood rather than a manly es­tate. I re­mem­ber weep­ing long and hard be­cause my mother wouldn’t buy me long (and hard serge) trousers, even though they were al­lowed at school once you reached the ex­alted age of 10. To go into school, knees painfully vis­i­ble, while your tor­men­tors were swish­ing about the place in their new strides, and adopt­ing at­ti­tudes so they could show off their adaman­tine creases... well, I don’t think I’ve ever again ex­pe­ri­enced such hu­mil­i­a­tion. Still, that didn’t stop me from don­ning shorts once the taboo was re­laxed. I blame global warm­ing, as well as the Princely En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist. In the early Noughties, the cli­mate be­came sticky all year round, while I was still an ac­tive fel­low, walk­ing and cy­cling ev­ery­where; so please for­give me, gen­tle reader, for this dread­ful sole­cism, and let me now state un­equiv­o­cally for the record, that I have learned the er­ror of my ways. A male knee over 40 should never — and I mean never — be ex­posed to the world, ex­cept in a com­pet­i­tive con­text.

I don’t care if you’re ly­ing on the pearles­cent white sand of Mus­tique, and just want to go up to the beach bar to order a frozen daiquiri, PUT YOUR FUCK­ING TROUSERS ON, MAN! Or else, quite frankly, you aren’t a man at all. The sight of male knees, bob­bing along Lon­don streets in mid­win­ter, fills me with gloom and trep­i­da­tion. Clearly, not only is the world about to melt down into a gaseous sludge of an­thropic com­bus­tion, but in lieu of strong, ca­pa­ble and em­phat­i­cally mas­cu­line men, able to re­source­fully com­bat this en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, we have in­stead a na­tion of kidults flip-flop­ping about the place in shorts!

Yes, if the reve­la­tion of the fe­male knee her­alds at the least the pos­si­bil­ity of erotic plea­sure, then the pro­mis­cu­ous ex­po­sure of its male coun­ter­part is naught save a har­bin­ger of death and de­struc­tion. An in­ti­ma­tion that’s surely only re­in­forced — be­cause the body part the knee most closely re­sem­bles is the hu­man cra­nium. Yes, you thought this month’s col­umn was mak­ing you feel a lit­tle queasy, but now, ev­ery time you bend down to put on your flip-flops, you’ll see them: those two smooth and rounded pro­tu­ber­ances — mock­ing skulls which will re­mind you, time and again, that your days are… num­bered.

I have learned the er­ror of my ways. A male knee over 40 should never — and I mean never — be ex­posed to the world, ex­cept in a com­pet­i­tive con­text

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