Happy Birthday Sexy John Wilkes
Happy Birthday John Wilkes, 291 years young. 291 years ugly. 291 years sexy.
I may have blogged about “Wilkes and Liberty” already. But this is me blogging on “Sexy Wilkes”. In this picture, he is caricatured by Hogarth, but barely. Wilkes really was just about the ugliest man in London. His best friend, the ursine poet Charles Churchill was probably the second ugliest – and he attacked Hogarth in verse following this attack on Wilkes. Wilkes then drew a picture of Churchill as a bear. The attacks probably would have gone on and on indefinitely had not Churchill and Hogarth not both died. The young Churchill outlived the old Hogarth by just ten days.
Wilkes lives on, meanwhile to carry his reputation as a sexual superstar into subsequent decades. It is said that aged 70, he was hurrying through the streets and was stopped by a friend. “Can’t stop” shouted Wilkes. “I have an erection and it may not last.”
File this story in a hefty file marked “Too Good To Check”.
Notably both Wilkes and Churchill regarded their unprepossessing appearance as something that enhanced rather than damaged their amorous reputations. The horrible and off-putting squint that disfigured Wilkes’ face became something that served to cast his extraordinary charm in sharper relief. He used to say “Give me half an hour with a woman and I can talk away my face.”
We recall Richard III’s ability to woo a widow draped tearfully over the corpse of the husband he had killed.
Perhaps true sexual charisma is never about physical perfection – but rather about something that overcomes a kind of prejudicial beginning – the ability to overcome some initial resistance. True sexiness invests itself in overcoming some tediously obvious shortcoming. Al Pacino is very short. Humphrey Bogart wore a wig and talked funny. In Star Trek Next Generation, a conventionally good looking actor was cast as second in command was initially expected to take care of all the love interest. Turned out the greying bald guy was to enjoy rather more sexual charisma as the series went on.
Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Wilkes both enjoyed a “punk” sensibility. They both, in their own ways, joined in and consolidated the chorus of “We’re So Pretty”, because by sheer force of personality – they managed to change what “pretty” is. It is the punks through history who provide an aesthetic challenge to drearily classicised (dare I say Aryan) categories of the sublime and the beautiful – permanent archetypes of genetic perfections.
Moyra Haslett then introduced us to a rich collection of broadside ballads dealing with the Wood’s Half Pence affair. She not only presented and contextualised these songs. She actually sang some of them too. She sang them well. This not only brought these songs properly to life, but put intolerable pressure on anyone else who ever tries to give an academic paper on broadside ballads, myself included.
Hope for us all.