The Culture Interview: Rowan Pelling – The Amorist

6 mn read

Rowan Pelling, the vivacious editor of The Amorist, a grown up version of The Erotic Review, is just about to publish a second issue. Here she explains how she feels sexier herself at 49 and how much she loves writers who ‘make you exhale at both their audacity and the painful beauty of their writing’ when they are penning their hearts out about great sex. And she’s definitely putting the sexy word out there for women and men as they get older. No sign of invisibility here.

How is it starting The Amorist in comparison with The Erotic Review?

The Erotic Review was something I fell into, aged 28, after volunteering to help my art dealer friend Jamie Maclean during the Christmas rush for his new company, The Erotic Print Society. He had an eight-page newsletter and my ambitions for the publication were unrealistic and unwise, but fortunately I did not know that. I had the luck of the blissfully naïve with that launch. I managed to get the magazine into Waterstones after calling head office and saying they could keep the cover price and then an acquaintance wrote it all up for the Sunday Telegraph. There was no strategy, no subscription house, no distribution (we drove the copies round branches of Waterstones) and we brought out the early issues as and when we felt like it. The whole thing grew organically and then was defeated by online filth.

This time round I have a proper, experienced magazine publisher – James Pembroke, who also publishes The Oldie – which makes all the difference in the world. James and the backer came to me. At first they talked about resurrecting the Erotic Review, but I pointed out that it was very much alive and kicking as a website. Also, I wanted to do something rather different and less punning and boys’ school in tone. I really wanted to reflect the concerns and interests of middle-aged women like me, who are fascinated by the many evolutions of their love and sex lives. Can monogamy work? Is polyamory feasible? Should we go to the grave without having a same-sex fling? How can we innovate within a long-term relationship? What is pegging? Plus lots of good, sexy fiction. I don’t see The Amorist as being an exclusively female magazine and male readers seem to love it. But I do see it as being primarily aimed at women in mid-life and their partners.

Are you older, wiser and sexier?

Ha, I’m certainly older (49 now) and I’m wise enough to know I have very little wisdom at all. As for sexier… Well, yes, strangely, I do feel sexier. I’m one of life’s late starters. When my schoolfriends were all pulling boys aged 17, I was overweight and acne-ridden and the “interesting” – i.e. unsexy – one. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 20, I didn’t lose the weight until I left university and I finally lost the spots aged 40 when I went to see a Harley St doctor. So I’ve always felt the passing years have given, rather than taken away. Yes, you lose a particularly fresh-faced glow once you move out of your thirties, but I’ve found you gain something different – a different form of effervescence that comes from having experience greater sexual passion and emotional complication – and having survived it all. I’ve never really believed that yoga, water and pure thoughts will keep you young and sexy. I think cramming in as much sex as you can possibly garner generally does the trick. What one dear friend calls, “Living wrong and being free.”

How does this pertain to your own erotic evolution?

See above. Hmm. Every person that you love deeply gives something to you. There’s a temptation to feel people rob you when they stop loving you with that incredible electric force you could call erotic single-mindedness. So I feel the trick is to remember they have actually endowed you with their love and that you can choose to keep the truth of and memory of that within you. Not to reject it as lies, because love has let you down. Erotic love will always let you down. No one can live on that tempo forever.

Has your remit widened at The Amorist to include tantra, for instance?

Yes, we are definitely going to write about Tantra. A friend is going on a week-long course in Germany soon, just for starters (and obviously covering this for the mag). I had a wellbeing spread – what we called The Well-rested Heart – in the launch issue and I intend to expand that section. It’s run by my features editor Belinda Bamber, who is a veteran of Hoffman, of Five Rhythms and The Path of Love. I’ve spent some time with Nicole Daedone of Orgasmic Meditation fame. What makes me laugh is the fact I used to be so cynical about all this kind of alternative stuff. When you’re young, you think you feel, therefore you are. You don’t suppose that you can access more feeling, more intensity, if you just open up to other forms of cultural wisdom.

How do you avoid erotic clichés?

I don’t suppose I do. I’m probably a walking erotic cliché. But there are certain phrases and scenarios we try to discourage – too much sea, water and oceanic metaphor, for example. I’m not very keen on words like boobs and pussy – they just strike me as being icky-lickle-woman-who-can’t-say-breasts-and-cunt. I try and avoid ideas that are unhelpfully prevalent in the culture. The notion that there’s some sort of technical know-how that makes you red-hot in bed, rather than picking out the partner who smells and tastes right to you and who knows how to listen and give back. I don’t like the idea that it’s acceptable to fake orgasms (although plenty would disagree). I don’t like dishonesty about sex.

What does good erotic writing mean to you?

Something that creates some kind of erotic climax and doesn’t resort to clichés. There’s plenty of good, useful porny writing out in the culture, but I’d say the reader response to that is mechanical rather than brain-and-soul-and-body. I love authors who make you exhale at both their audacity and the painful beauty of their writing. Because great sex is often like a breathtaking, but slightly menacing landscape – there is something that threatens to overwhelm and crush the self within it.

Please let us know your own proclivities in writers and poets?

I love Sarah Hall’s erotic short stories. Monique Roffey’s forthcoming novel The Tryst is also magnificent. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is my favourite erotic novel (Sarah Hall’s too, as it happens). Gordon by Edith Templeton is the British Story of O and should be far better known. Hanif Kureishi is always fascinating about sexual relationships. As for poets, there are too many to mention – Donne may top the list. Neil Rollinson and Caron Freeborn are too little known and both write excellent poetry about sex. Caron’s only started publishing her work in her late 40s and is definitely someone for Advantages of Age. She’s funny, sly and exquisitely truthful. I edited a book for Everyman’s Library, Erotic Tales, which gives a fair indication of my taste in erotic prose.

Will you be featuring the over 50s in your pieces?

Will we? We already are. All ruddy over the mag. My agony aunt is Louisa Young, who’s somewhere in her 50s (agony uncle Damian Barr is admittedly younger), my style writer, the bestselling author Christobel Kent, is again mid-50s and is photographed looking gorgeous on her spread about sexy silk slips. We have a piece about Japanese rope bondage written and illustrated by Isobel Williams – haven’t asked her age, but would guess 60 – and an amazing first-person article by Elaine Kingett entitled Sex and the Single 67-year-old. And Rosie Boycott wrote a thoughtful letter for the launch issue. Most of my women writers are 45-plus in terms of age.

Do you think it’s allowed to be sexy and older these days in Britain?

We are getting better about allowing that older people may have some small claim to sexuality. I look around me and see a revolution led by sparky women who refuse to submit to the cliché of comfy shoes and elastic-waistbands – who want to go out in corsets and stockings and fitted clothes. I always laugh at the myth about middle-aged being invisible. I really and truly believe this is a matter of personal choice. You can make yourself invisible at any age – or you can take a leaf out of Vivienne Westwood’s book and be fabulous. I’m always pointing out that when I walk around Cambridge (where I live) the students are invisible to me. I literally cut them out of my vision, because I’m not interested in them. Or, at least, I’m not interested unless they are presenting themselves in a very singular manner, which most of them don’t. But I am fascinated by men and women in my age group 45-65. I observe them very closely – what they say and wear and do. I suspect you only invisible in middle age if your vanity demands a 22-year-old notices you. But I’d rather be noticed by my peers. I love it when a woman my age admires something I’m wearing.

And what about other countries?

The French are notoriously better at celebrating older women. Vive la France! Italians and the Spanish always seem quite celebratory too. In America you have to put the hard hours into the gym and submit to Botox, which is too much of a sweat. I’m glad to be British, if only for the tolerance of a few lines. Also, I live in Cambridge where Mary Beard is an acknowledged goddess and kitten women aren’t the role models. Phew.

Give us a little quote that sums up the spirit of The Amorist?

I think that’s best left to Robert Browning:

The moment eternal – just that and no more –
When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core
While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut and lips meet!
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