21 January 2021
Let’s Party Like It’s…
By Neil Tidmarsh
All over the world, police are having a hard time enforcing lockdowns, social distancing and all the other anti-virus rules and regulations. Spare a thought for officers in Argentina who were called in to break up a party on an estate in the resort of Mar del Plata near Buenos Aires last week (someone had reported that at least twenty couples had gathered there for “unusual reasons”). They found a full-blown orgy in full swing. But that wasn’t their biggest problem. None of the party goers – neither the hosts nor the guests – believed that they were real policemen. Everyone assumed that these fit young men and women in uniform were the hired strippers, and couldn’t be persuaded otherwise.
It’s hard to avoid stories about such reckless bacchanals in the news these days. Remember the “lockdown gay sex orgy” in Brussels which outed Jozsef Szajer (MEP and founder-member of Hungary’s homophobic political establishment) when it was raided by police for breaking the coronavirus curfew and social restrictions last month? (see Poland, Hungary & the EU, Shaw Sheet 10 December 2020).
There was even an example from cold and soggy England in the news this week, albeit a rather comfy and typically British “nice cup of tea and hot water bottle” version of the kind of wild Saturnalian gatherings which are going on elsewhere in the world. Chiltern Railways is investigating allegations that twenty of its staff – some of whom were supposed to be on shift – partied in a closed station café at Marylebone during last November’s national lockdown. An orgy in Marylebone station? Heaven forbid! No, this was a baby shower – that nice, wholesome, sickly-sweet and vacuous ancient English tradition recently imported from the USA. All of the guests had to isolate after some of them later tested positive. Chiltern Railways – station café – Marylebone – baby shower – makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?
And then there was that party in Egypt which came to light when certain dodgy pictures appeared on social media. Arrests were made last week. Well, one arrest was made. It was a birthday party at the elite Gezira Club in Cairo and the photos were of the birthday cakes and of the elegant socialite ladies tucking into them. The cakes, as ordered, were baked in the shapes of buttocks and breasts and the even naughtier bits of both sexes. The baker was detained for “offending family values” (or some other equally oppressive proprieties) but has been released on bail. The Egyptian government is apparently setting up a committee to investigate the affair and to decide how to punish the guests. Sounds like a job for the judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith – the Great Egyptian Bake-Off.
Ok, that isn’t a coronavirus story but it is an example of the paradox that locked doors and oppressive rules only seem to encourage the kind of subversive and taboo behaviour which they’re supposed to prevent. When the Marquis de Sade’s four aristocratic libertines locked themselves away for four months in a remote and inaccessible German castle high up on a mountain and in the middle of a forest, it was inevitable that no good would come of it, even before the arrival of depraved accomplices and innocent guests, and hardly surprising that it made for one of the world’s most controversial books – The 120 Days of Sodom – and one of the world’s most controversial films – Pasolini’s Salò.
Add in a pandemic of a potentially fatal virus, and the urge to indulge in hedonistic taboo-breaking behind closed doors becomes all the more powerful. Boccaccio, reporting on the Black Death in Florence in 1347-9, describes how some people decided “to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, singing and merrymaking and gratifying all of one’s cravings… in the privacy of various houses.” Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, as the saying goes, or “We could all die any day / Ooow / But before I’ll let that happen / I’ll dance my life away” as Prince (or The Artist Formerly Known As…) sang, urging us to party like it’s 1999.
The last word on this whole subject is of course Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero goes into lockdown when pestilence – the Red Death – strikes the country. He and a host of “hale and lighthearted” courtiers “retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys… A strong and lofty wall girded it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress…” Lulled into a false sense of security, lured into shedding all inhibitions by the absolute privacy of the place, and indulging in all of life’s threatened pleasures while they can, they follow that other Prince’s advice and go all out to party like it’s 1999. But of course there’s no escaping the deadly Red Death; the pestilence manages to penetrate even their lockdown; “one by one dropped the revellers…” Party over / Oops out of time.
When the virus struck last spring, a group of neighbours got together in our back garden to have one last communal drink, suitably socially distanced, before the first lockdown kicked in. Another neighbour who was already isolating (she’d just come back from Italy) took an interesting photo of the gathering from her second floor window. The overhead angle emphasised the dysfunctional and sad nature of the party – we were all standing two metres apart – on that cold and miserable March afternoon. “Hardly the wild orgy of the Masque of the Red Death” I commented at the time, somewhat wistfully. But now, almost a year on, I rather relish this lockdown’s enforced anti-social regime. I’ve always longed to hibernate through January – the month is fit for nothing else – and now I have my chance. I only woke up to write this article and now it’s finished I’m going straight back to sleep again.
What’s that? You’re inviting me to a party? A wild party which I’ll regret missing for the rest of my life? No thanks. I’ll pass on that one. Go ahead without me. But keep the noise down, please. I intend to sleep until April or May and don’t want anything to wake me up before this ghastly crisis is all over.