A beautiful girl steps onto center stage. She strips off her clothes and stands nude in front of her audience, wearing nothing but a look of bold defiance on her face. The audience has come from miles around to witness this 16-year-old’s sensational act at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. They watch, bewitched, as she artfully arranges herself in a spread-eagle position on the floor.
A drum sounds. Servants appear from both sides of the stage and sprinkle barley grains over her naughty bits. The servants retire to the wings, leaving the girl exposed and alone. She claps her hands. Cages of hungry geese are rolled out onto the stage and released. The audience roars as the birds flock round her body and devour the grains one by one from her young flesh. She laughs, twisting with pleasure, until every grain is gone. Then she stands proudly, her eyes impassive, her laughter subsiding to just the trace of a smile. The crowd cheers her wantonness and she takes a bow.
Summer is over, the “art colony” is on hiatus, and I’m back in London. This city is a dark and nervously contained place. Why do London men shave their heads? They’re so oppressively Anglo-Saxon, avoiding eye contact. They can’t see my shimmering French sparkle, my long hair, my tan, my sandals, my chiffon harem pants. I feel too sunny for this town, so I dim the lights and don something dark, choosing the Empress Theodora of Constantinople as my new bad girl guide. Her strangely distant past is vague, with the only history written about her a “secret history” by the Byzantine court historian Procopius, who suggests that she was nothing more than an insatiable nymphomaniac.
According to Procopius, Theodora often went to parties with ten or more sex-obsessed men, all at the peak of their physical powers, and she would spend the night screwing them in every conceivable position. When she had thoroughly exhausted her lovers, she would turn her attention to the thirty or so servants in the room and have sex with them, too. “But not even so could she satisfy her lust,” Procopius writes. “Though she brought three bodily apertures into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling that Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region. Naturally she was frequently pregnant, but by using all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce immediate abortion.”
Procopius’ moralizing is pretty hilarious. Clearly, he hated Theodora for enjoying herself and getting Emperor Justinian to marry her even though she was a big Byzantine whore. He claimed that she was much given to black magic, and that it was through love philtres and the diabolic arts that she kept Justinian enslaved. Theodora’s boudoir was covered in dozens of bearskins, upon which she luxuriated sensuously as she entertained her customers. Her jokes were lewd, she wiggled her hips a lot, and the money poured in. “Never was anyone so completely given up to unlimited self-indulgence.”
Too right. I start to visit Denise, the office manager at Kent’s music studio. Denise is a living bad girl with purple dreadlocks and a huge love of techno music, and I start to live my own secret history in a time of dancing, rebellion and London night life.
I hang out with Denise and her friends in a scene that’s all new to me: techno music, free parties in abandoned warehouses, late nights that carry into the next afternoon and cat-and-mouse games with the police officers who are attempting to enforce the latest, free-party-killing version of the UK Criminal Justice Act. Every weekend and sometimes during the week, Denise plays big mama to the squatters, anarchists, crusties and ex-junkies who come round to her flat in Finsbury Park.
Some day, Denise tells me, she will buy a fine rig so she can become a deejay diva and get busy blasting underground sounds to the free-party nation. Denise drives us one night to an ugly funk show in a club near Elephant and Castle, where I meet a sweet and smiling boy named Dave. One look at his beaming face from across the dance floor tells me that he’s nothing like the scowling, shaven-headed men of London. “That boy’s not from around here,” I say to myself just before we meet and spend the next five hours dancing.