"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
— Samuel Johnson
London is arguably the centre of the world. It is the largest city in Europe and the only place like it to emerge in recent years is New York. Everything happens in London. It is all civilisation crammed into a single city.
The big human news story in London this week is the ‘outing’ of Belle de Jour, the London escort girl whose blog became best selling books and a TV series starring Billy Piper. An escort girl is a high-end prostitute servicing London’s rich. They charge around £300 an hour, more for specials , and retain two-thirds; the rest going to the agency that markets them.
Belle de Jour had been assumed to be a journalist, or team, and probably male with a vivid imagination. Not a bit of it, Belle is a middle class English scientist working in bioinformatics in an elite research team at Bristol University, which is where the upper classes send their kids. Belle apparently speaks in a Northern English accent with the odd American vowel sound and Westcountry English drawl. She worked as an escort girl to pay off her PhD debts.
This story attracted my attention because Belle and I are first cousins, professional speaking. I am a (semi-retired) maths-trained biologist who worked essentially as a biodiversity data analyst in research teams. I worked with bioinformatics people. I remember my PhD viva. I had a wife and a two-week old baby to support so I worked all hours in the evenings and weekends as a computer game designer as well as building an academic career. So, fascinated, I dug a little into the Belle story.
Things were quite different and much more interesting than the bald facts suggested. Belle is American, not English. She was educated at the private Clearwater Catholic School in Florida, which suggests money in the family but something went wrong. Her mother lives a modest existence in the northern USA and her father is still in Florida where he has struggled with a drug habit and a fascination with prostitutes; he claims to have enjoyed the favours of 150. By her own acknowledgment, Belle was highly sexually active in her teems with multiple partners. She says she stopped counting when she reached twenty two.
She left school in ’92 and read a forensic science subject as a first degree. By the turn of the millennium, she was at Sheffield, an excellent university, research a PhD in bio/chemoinformatics. Belle was unusual in that she was an early web-logger in the states, with a food blog, and, being a geek, she opened new ‘blogs’ in the UK. One was a science blog called cosmas:
and the other was a diary called methylsalicylate:
Methylsalicylate is a plant ester related to acetylsalicyclic acid (aspirin) – ok, my first degree is in biochemistry. I told you Belle and I were first cousins, professionally speaking.
Personal blogs were incredibly rare at the time and the British ones were listed by a bloke called Darren, more about him later.
Belle finished her PhD but then had to write it up, submit the thesis and wait and prepare for the viva. This usually takes a year. She had saved some money and went to live in Scotland for some months. She has a weakness for malt whisky. I like a drop of Cardhu malt or Johnny Walker blended myself, a taste that I acquired working in Scotland on my PhD.
She decided to go to London, “where the jobs are”, and was there in 2003. She had not realised the huge difference between living costs in London to Northern Britain and her savings evaporated like the first frost in the autumn sun. Her solution was to work as an escort girl but she blogged about it because that was what she did – and Belle de Jour was born. She did get a stopgap job as a computer programmer but found it boring compared to being Belle.
Then she got her PhD and found professional research work at Newcastle and Bristol, which tells you she is one clever person.
The only mystery was that it took the press so long to out her because the clues were there all along. I suppose Belle is very clever and the British Press is not. Her private life was her downfall. Belle’s life is a chaotic train wreck and one of two squabbling boyfriends boasted to a friend of having had Belle de jour. Said ‘friend’ went to the Daily Mail, our most sanctimonious scandal sheet, who started an espionage operation.
Belle was tipped off by Darren and gave a controlled interview to the Guardian to spike the Mail story. Darren had always known who belle was because he realised that she must be an experienced Blogger which meant she was one of a handful of people.
One of those people was methylsalicylate, real name Brooke Manganti, who wrote stories for a site called Infovore. One was “Malted” . The girl in the story is fifteen or sixteen when it opens and has an affair with a man more than twice her age. She is introduced to malt and, later, goes to live in Scotland. The story ends describing a sex encounter in London, which is described as a ‘date’ but clearly isn’t.
Darren set up a googlewack trap;
and caught the Daily Mail in it. He was able to tip Belle off.
Brooke Manganti is a very bright, very creative person. She also clearly has issues, including, I would say, self hate although I doubt if she would agree. Well, we have discussed this before. Creatives are not uncommonly a few species short of a healthy mental ecosystem. It takes one to know one. I have to take an SSRI to keep the daemons at bay. So when you comment on this article, please remember that real, vulnerable people are involved and treat them gently.
So to Malted, which is a powerful, moving short story. I suspect it is achingly autobiographical. My eldest daughter, the scientist, reads my stories but my wife and youngest daughter don’t. They keep seeing autobiographical flashes in them that they find disturbing. I know a writer who puts nothing of himself in his fiction but that is unusual. For example, if you want to understand David Drake then read “Darkness”. Drake is much more than that one story but that story is him. I could not write without drawing on me and my life. Could you?
Malted is copyright Brooke Magnanti.
You can find her other stories here:
‘What the dead know’ is also very good.
October 20, 2003: Brooke likes a nip of the hard stuff.
The first time I met him, he was drinking whisky. A double of something on ice. When the barkeep presented the drink he dipped a finger in it, placing a drop behind each ear as women once did with perfume.
He asked what I was having. "Whatever you're having," I bluffed. He asked me how old I was. I told him, and he laughed, and bought me a soda.
Acquired taste worth acquiring? I'd never been with an older man. Soon after we were lovers. Twice my age, twice as big, educated and well-traveled. And he put back whisky like it was mother's milk.
Well, why not? He was scion of a family where Jack Daniel's was practically secreted by the womenfolk. Bourbon and whisky: given at every holiday, drunk at every meal, the tawny stuff that kept them going and brought the day to a close. The Johnnie Walker blends, based on Cardhu single malt. The legendary B-21 liquor store on US 19 employed more people than lived in town. An off-license on the border of Florida and Georgia, because the state north of us was dry.
We drove to Panama City to sit on a particular beach, drink a particular drink. I was embarrassed by my unconscious reaction to alcohol: wrinkled nose, curling lips. But I loved the way it warmed from the inside and the way people watched me as I tasted it. I was still five years below the drinking age.
He had the best bar game: pick any three whiskys or bourbons from the bar. Pour a measure of each. Bet you twenty bucks he could tell them apart.
I learned. The shape of the glass matters. The temperature of the glass matters. The measure, the pour, the ritual. Swirling it round, a caramel wave of liquor clinging to the inside of the glass. It retracts slowly like the damp line of the falling tide on sand.
Ice in that? Water? Not for me, thanks. A few years later, sitting on a friend's sofa. A tumbler of Laphroaig, my first sip of the harsh Islay malts. Like starting all over again. But the feeling afterward - not drunkenness, not lightheaded. The opposite. Grounded, focused, full.
One year I spent more money on whisky than on rent. Two vintage bottles in Scotland, dozens of nights out, hundreds of nights in. A miraculous pub in Flagstaff, Arizona. A neighbour who worked bar at a hotel. No wrinkled nose any more. It tasted of melted butter. Golden syrup. An acquired taste worth acquiring.
I moved to Scotland and swam in the thickly peaty rivers Findhorn and Spey. They tasted like sweet, aged whisky. I drank up honey-colored light. Scared off the cold of the evenings with a glass of malt. Sat up on the longest night of the year with a friend's father, drinking and playing the mandolin. The sky at midnight was the color of barley.
In London one evening for a date with a woman and her boyfriend. I was early, they were late. Waited at the bar drinking a single malt finished in a rum cask while the underpaid, overcool staff looked me over in pity. Ordered another and the couple whisked in, silver and scented and fabuloso. Later, when I'd made her come twice before dessert, the waiters couldn't fill my glass fast enough.
But you never forget your first. I never did. Years after we were no longer lovers, a decade after putting a glass in my hand, he was married. At the wedding his family and friends eyed me suspiciously. 'How grown-up you are now,' they said. I smiled, pinned a corsage to someone's lapel. Who ever said heartbreak is a cliche? When he said his vows I felt a spasm in my chest. Afterward I drank long and hard. The taste will always remind me of him.
What does it taste of? Like mother's milk, I say.