Page 45 Review by Stephen
There's more than one way of feeling exposed.
It can be getting your kit off in public, to be sure, but there's also finding yourself outside of your comfort zone and at the mercy of events you can't seem to control.
Imagine, for example, finding yourself on the way to catch an international flight which you cannot miss, and pungently smelling of faeces. For no discernible reason. Such is the stuff of nightmares. There, but for the grace of God, go we!
Seagle has had plenty of experience of both vulnerabilities and generously opens himself up for you to have a right laugh at his expense - and a good think. You will learn loads because, surprisingly, this is as much a travelogue as anything else, and it's all the richer for it.
The co-creator of IT'S A BIRD... and THE RE[A]D DIARY with Teddy Kristiansen has had professional cause to visit countless cities all over the globe where he has observed much to bring you great mirth, including different attitudes to communal nudity when it comes to swimming pools, saunas and showers.
Then there are his first-hand experiences of being naked in public. Not on the street - though there was one notable exception in Helsinki where out of necessity he found himself spread-eagled, starkers, like a starfish in the snow - but in places where most of us would naturally expect to strip... except, he informs us, in the US of A:
"[This] may seem obvious to non-Americans, but I can assure you that in the U.S.A., most pool-goers shower in their swimming suits, so as not to have to get naked."
Good grief! And I thought the British were self-conscious prudes.
Put into the eye-opening context of America's full-throttle recent retreat from nudity (as late as the '70s, during gender-segregated swimming sessions at some high schools, swimming naked for boys was mandatory), this is a personal journey through personal journeys of one man emerging into a healthy equanimity with removing his clothes from after a lifetime of crippling embarrassment when it came to his body on account of considering himself physically inferior, almost translucently pale and skinny.
For Steven it began with a girl - of course it did! - a girl whom he fancied at school. She called him "cute", constantly, and he took it as a huge compliment... until the day on which he discovered that she was referring to his lack of muscular, manly development, and she made a big show of it in front of her friends. It's then that t-shirts and shorts were abandoned for decades, even in the sweatiest of weather, in favour of maximum length and multiple layers.
There's an all too similarly sad moment in Liz Prince's TOMBOY.
Recovering from this was a gradual progress that began, improbably enough, during one memorable experience at a tiny comicbook convention in Alicante. It doesn't seem the most likely venue to be forced out of your clothes in front of others, does it? Nevertheless, that is what happens, but not on stage. The trauma begins with a friendly football match, the prospect of which was trauma enough for Steven who had no faith in his athletic prowess, nor the slightest comprehension of soccer rules. And I know what you may be thinking: "Oh come on, it's only a game!" But I still have regular nightmares of being forced on stage without having even read the play in the first place, let alone memorised its lines. It's exactly the same thing, and Seagle is ever so adept at placing you squarely in his emotional, short-coming shoes.
The break-through began when he bit the bullet of this post-match, communal shower and in full fear of being judged physically by those much buffer than himself. He found that he was not. Not one jot. No one was remotely interested.
Flipping backwards and forwards in time, the writer than expands on his liberation from self-stifling anxiety, not to a whey-hey get-it-all-out exhortation towards exhibitionism but to a realisation that this and his other fears surrounding nudity proved to be completely ill-founded. He's equally eloquent and candid about all that. There's even a personal, circumstantial-evidence poll about what his straight friends and his gay friends say they fear most about showering with other men. It does make perfect sense.
Now, I began this casual assessment by proclaiming that this collection of essays harboured far more than a catalogue of bath-house experiences, yet that is what I've appeared to fixate upon. I promise you that I wasn't kidding.
Sometimes the naked bits feel like more of an excuse for other even more interesting anecdotes with which he'll regale you in full - like Seagle's complete inability to recognise the film-famous out of their celluloid context - but instances of skin-bearing actually act as an editor of sorts, confining what is, I suspect, a five-fold treasure-trove of additional stories to a later collection. "If it doesn't involve stripping, then I can't even go there."
Each essay is illustrated by an artist whom you'll grow so comfortable with that their successor will prove quite the surprise and delight. Some bring you something close to comics, others will deliver a more prose-and-illustration effect. One will cram your cranium full of yearning to visit the old / new majesty of Tallinn, newly freed from Soviet occupation. Now therein lies a sense of historical perspective!
Another will make you shudder as you embark on an ill-advised excursion into Karlovy Vary which you'll wish Seagle had shied well away from. Seagle too! It's so dank and darkly illustrated that you might fear you were straying into the latest hostel movie. Brrrrr...
As to why, after his flight out of Barcelona, he - and he alone - was bundled out of the plane in Munich by shouting, armed guards...
So many of my favourite pages, however, are the chapter introductions / interludes by Emel Olivia Burell. They are majestic, and I've a fair few for you here!