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