We Lack Discipline Reads: ‘The Bet’ by Vivienne Tuffnell

What a lovely house…Be a shame if some terribly tragic events were to occur there! (Credit: Image copyright: Vivienne Tuffnell, all rights reserved)

Disclaimer: I consider myself a friend of the author. I did pay for the book. However my personal relationship with the author could potentially colour my interpretation and opinion of the book.
That said I make every effort to be objective and generally don’t like what I don’t like and am honest about it. I believe I genuinely like the text and my like is not informed by my friendship with the author.

Content Warning: Sexual and emotional abuse, sexual assault, abuse of children, discussions about masculinity and male social roles.

Kouroi are statues from the Greek Archaic period (~700-480 BCE) of idealised, naked male youths. The story of these two is debated, there is an inscription saying they were made by ‘Polymedes of Argos’ and identifies them as ‘ϜΑΝΑΚΩΝ’ or ‘Princes’ – However many suggest they are Kleobis and Biton, two brothers who were gifted death by Hera after they dragged Cydippe, their mother and a priestess of Hera, to the temple for a festival, because they could not find the oxen. Death? As a gift? Could Hera not get them, like, a PS5 or something? (Credit: Sharon Mollerus CC-BY 2.0)

The notion of the beautiful boy, a gorgeous young man twinkling in the eyes of their beholder is not a new or modern concept. It is as old, at least, as European civilisation. Pederasty in Ancient Greece was a known behaviour. At certain times (we could span ‘Ancient Greece’ from the beginning of the Archaic Period around 800 BCE all the way to the end of the Roman Period around 455 CE!) and in different places, as Greece was mainly comprised of smaller city states, or Poleis. You apprenticed under an older man (generally a male in his 20s-40s and a boy around 13-20) and often he had sex with you whilst teaching you your role in society or a specific job, it was just how things were done.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian is widely known to have had a lasting homosexual relationship with a boy named Antinous. Antinous was likely around 10 years old when he first met Hadrian, and 13 when they began their relationship. Hadrian would have been 45 and 48 respectively.

Antinous died young, at the age of 20, in a tragic drowning accident.  

This, it must be stressed, is allegedly never about denigration or subjugation of the younger subject. In the minds of their lovers, these boys were not ‘abused’, indeed they were being idolised and idealised. They ‘loved’ them. The boy’s shyness, his reticence or hesitance were signs of his true, almost divine beauty. The idealised youth in these relationships was best if he carried himself without ego, internally self-realised and self-sufficient.

The bust of Antinous (foreground, right) and Hadrian (background, left) in the British Museum. There are many statues of Antinous out there, and some amazing representations of the Antinous from Delphi on a t-shirt! After his death (He fell into the Nile, either acidentally, as a voluntary sacrifice, or was murdered) Hadrian grieved heavily, he was immediately deified and associated with the Egyptian God Osiris, a city to him was built (Antinoöpolis), Hadrian had a shrine, or temple (the Antinoeion) built to him at his villa and basically commissioned a bunch of statues to this boy. (Credit: Jim Kuhn CC-BY-SA 4.0)

However, that ‘shyness’, that ‘reticence’ is a silence. It is a lack of a voice. We do not have the thoughts and opinions of those young boys in Greece. We do not know how they felt about this form of ‘apprenticeship’, this form of learning your place in society. We know of Antinous’ existence, we know of his ‘relationship’ with a powerful and important man. We know nothing of how he felt of it.  

This is very similar to the main character in ‘The Bet’, except we get to hear his voice.

Those relationships, though, focus on the male-on-male attention. On men being attracted to young boys. The notion of women being attracted to young boys would not have been an alien one, either. It would be foolish to suggest that throughout history women have not used young boys in the same way those men did, perhaps less frequently, but they did it.

As far as I am aware that is the single biggest theme in ‘The Bet’. Our main character is such a ‘Beautiful Boy’ and the things done to him by powerful women in his life are the defining plot points.

In the feminine sphere it is a sad truth that sexual assault is common, far more common than it should be and men are their predominant abusers. Most cases of abuse are unreported.

Agrippina the Younger, the mother of the Emperor Nero. There were multiple rumours about their relationship, although even Roman historians, such as Dio, dispute their legitimacy. (Credit: BurgererSF Public Domain)

In the masculine sphere I expect this lack of reporting is even more so. Indeed, socially and culturally there may be a complete lack of acknowledgement that what they experienced was even abuse. I should clarify, though, the data would still suggest there are fewer male victims of sexual assaults and abuse.

Then we have violence to contend with. Whilst there is no innate, biological mechanism in men that causes violence, masculinity is correlated with violence, the majority of violent crimes are committed by men. Masculinity and violence go hand-in-hand.

I do not suspect the same of sexual assault. I expect sexual assault is much more linked with power and dominance.

At the moment our power structures, pretty much globally, are highly patriarchal. Men have, and are expected to have, power. However what would occur in a world where women had equal power? What if, as men do, they used that power not only to subjugate and control, but to dominate and abuse? These are situations posed in ‘The Bet’.

It may seem inconsiderate for me, a white dude, to be talking about things like this. I truly want an equitable world. But I read biology, I read psychology, and that colours my understanding of these issues. The denial of the psychological reality that it is power that is likely the causal agent of abuse, not sex or gender, which is merely a correlate of that power due to a patriarchal imbalance, will cause future problems. I don’t want those problems. I want a better future for everyone. I want to minimise harm to everyone. I want power to go to those with the morals and ethics strong enough to counter the inevitable attraction, the ability to corrupt, that that power will bring. 

Sexual assault and abuse is significantly more common in girls and women and the perpetrators are mostly men. It is at a point where there is almost a female cultural expectation of abuse, and a system of reporting that is dehumanising, uncaring, indeed it seems set up to shame rather than support. This system encourages silence, it encourages underreporting.

Sexual assault and abuse in boys and men is known also. It is far less common than in girls and women and by any reasonable measures would probably still be so even if every case were reported. But it occurs. Abuse of boys and men by men is the most prevalent form of abuse. However there is an added shame, a cultural shame, a patriarchal, misogynist shame to the notion of a boy or a man being abused by a woman. That culture of shame, of silence, of lack of care is there for boys and men just as it is for girls and women. These crimes go underreported too.

I want all victims of abuse and assault to be cared for, believed and to receive proper justice, regardless of their sex or gender. I want all abusers to be given a proper justice, an educational justice, reparation – as much as is possible, regardless of their sex or gender.

The system in place right now is one that puts a huge burden upon the victim. It discourages speaking out, it discourages seeking justice. We need to work for a society where abuse is not an expectation for girls and women, and is not a rare shame to be hidden for boys and men. We need a justice system that makes victims feel safe, protected and comfortable bringing their abusers to justice, regardless of the sexes or genders of any of the involved parties.

We are dealing with some heavy topics, and I can’t find any infographics or stock images I’m happy with so I will just be putting images of pretty things for added levity. This is a view over Folkestone and the Folkestone Warren taken from the Battle of Britain Memorial Museum at Capel-le-Ferne. This is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) due to many rare plants (including some unique orchids if I remember rightly) bird nesting sites and paleo-geological interest due to studying the chalk cliffs and their Cretaceous strata. (Credit: Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent CC-BY-3.0)

Please do not misunderstand me! If I say anything out of place please come find me on twitter, message me about it and let’s discuss it. I will try to ensure this piece is as fair and inoffensive as possible but I know each person processes these things differently, especially where trauma is involved. Please, if I have upset you, feel free to contact me to discuss it or even feel free to ban me, block me and ignore me forever. I will understand.

There is a lot I don’t know and I don’t want to misrepresent anything, especially not about a topic as serious as this. I place sexual crimes high on the list of inhumanities. I believe it is one of the grossest violations of another person and, especially when it happens to young people it changes them – It need not define them, or their future, but people are forever changed by these types of experience. But it can change people significantly for the worse. I dread to think the number of victims who have taken their own lives in the shame and discomfort. It’s a fucking tragedy and one I wish to prevent.

But ‘The Bet’ is not only about abuse in general. It is about the abuse of a specific young man, and it deals with topics of power in women, of abuse of that power, of masculinity, of emasculation caused by abuse, of feeling less-of-a-man, of how masculinity develops, of expectation of how masculinity should develop, of what a man is ‘supposed’ to be.

As mentioned above, as we move towards a society that redresses the power imbalance between men and women, women are going to be put in more positions of power and the role of men, and the very nature of masculinity, is adapting too.

I hope that in such a world women would not utilise that power to objectify men in the way men have with women. I hope that powerful women, or groups of women with power, would not feel entitled to ownership of any man, their body, or their autonomy.

Power corrupts, and in a world where men have most of the power we can expect most corruption to be committed by men. However, Priti Patel is a fucking bully and I don’t think she’s got a cock-and-balls! We already see powerful women corruptly using that power. There have been numerous cases of women in positions of power; carers, orphanage workers, nuns and teachers sexually abusing young boys and girls.

The beach at Dunwich, Suffolk, taken from the cliffs. There is actually a hidden, sunken town at Dunwich. It was once a lot more sizeable than it is now, with East Anglia having been a significant trade area. However, significant storms in the late 13th and 14th centuries completely changed the coastline, burying many houses, buildings and towns beneath the waves. Legend has it you can still hear the bells of the church beneath the sea when the tide is right. (Credit: © Copyright Rob Noble CC-BY-SA 2.0)

For now masculinity is assumed dominance and assumed privilege but as we move towards a more equal, equitable society, and as that balance changes, so too will the discourse. What once was seen as taboo, what once could not be uttered, or would bring shame on the victim, we will be able to speak freely about. Perhaps only then will we begin to have some understanding of the numbers of boys involved in this sort of abuse.

In this respect I felt ‘The Bet’ was very ahead of its time.

I want to give a huge credit to the author for her portrayal of masculinity. Knowing the ins-and-outs of someone’s sex or gender identity is never easy, and how masculine or feminine Vivienne identifies is neither here nor there. What is relevant is that she sketches the outline of manhood, and how it develops, with an eerie precision and then proceeds to colour it in until – at least to me, with my experience, it was a photorealistic masterpiece.

I’m a sensitive lad, as an autistic person it sort of comes with the territory. Others might think people with autism might be unfeeling but it is my experience that, like living with nerve pain, we feel so much we are either in agony or numbed.

Either way I am not what could be considered a ‘manly man’. I have my sensitivities and I am unashamed of them.

I have no fear of these sensitivities, though, because like the main character in ‘The Bet’ I grew up scrapping! An almost inevitable part of the male experience, as discussed above, is violence. There is no biological causal mechanism for masculine violence and yet it occurs so commonly.

As such the portrayal of masculinity in ‘The Bet’ is one of the most nuanced I’ve ever read. I must admit I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I’ve been around. In the ‘literary fiction’ genre, where so many of the works of world renowned ‘geniuses’ can be condensed to “I’m an old man now. Here’s how much I had sex when I was younger. I wish I could be as powerful again. Let’s think about death.” The structure and plot of ‘The Bet’ turns that whole trope on its head and it resonated far better with me, as, I suppose, a non-conventional male.

The book deals with the sad and sorry life of a young man, Antony Ashurst. He is privileged by birth yet marred by circumstance.

I don’t want to give away a lot of the plot in this introductory article, because the book is £2.99 (or local equivalent) on Kindle and I think you should all buy it. I have permission from the author to give it an in depth analysis and that is my intention. I did say, though, that I wanted to find some way of doing it where sales would not be impacted by me giving away too much! I want to use this introduction as a bit of an ad first so that I do not ruin the sales of Vivienne’s book.

A stretch of the Malham Cove walk in the Yorkshire Dales. Yorkshire will eventually become a location in ‘The Bet’ but I chose this image because I bloody love a good wall, me. Especially a dry-stone wall! I know it makes me sound like I’m 55, wear t-shirts for bands from the 70s nobody has ever heard of and go to real ale festivals, but I’m not. I just love a good dry-stone wall! (Credit: TimHill via Pixabay)

So for now, rather than go into plot details, what I really want to focus on is how much of a masterful writer Vivienne is, and how she combines an understanding of nature with a foundational Christian ethic to paint a picture akin to a ‘psychological decadence’.

Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Une Charogne‘ or ‘A Carcass’ from his collection of lyric poetry ‘Les Fleurs du Mal‘ or ‘The Flowers of Evil’ is possibly one of the most grotesquely sexual pieces of poetry ever written and demonstrates perfectly the overwrought, unashamed emotionality that Baudelaire pulled out of himself for his work. (Credit: Étienne Carjat Public Domain)

For those who don’t know the decadent movement was a 19th century (pretty late in the 19th century, I would say an inevitable wake-up call following Romanticism) artistic or cultural movement that focussed on decline and decay. One of the key themes is art in opposition to nature, of creativity as one of humanity’s bastions against this creeping ivy of cruelty. It was focussed on sickness, on the brokenness of the world, of the cruelty of nature, it was sceptical and probing. In some cases it delighted in this, it revelled in it. I think of Baudelaire and his use of rot, of decay, of the physical decline of the flesh to emphasise the importance of indulging it before it is nothing but meat for worms. He sexualised decay, go and read his poem ‘A Carcass’ for just…the most transcendental example of decadence. I love the work of that overwrought bastard!

The movement started in Europe, and much like many fashionable European things Britain took it and ruined it. Our main decadent was Oscar Wilde. Outside of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ I pretty much dislike Wilde. He is far too focussed on the aesthetic and not focussed nearly enough on the creeping horror of nature invading that human space. If you’re into the whole socio-cultural etiquette thing I can see why you think he’s genius but Baudelaire makes him look like a napping Tory to me.

I write myself and would describe a lot of my poetry as ‘Natural Decadence’. If you’ve read my articles on biology you will understand I believe the universe is innately amoral, life is innately cruel, life needs life, life consumes life to live and the whole thing is a chaotic mess from which there is no escape! It’s the most beautiful horror ever conceived. Like Baudelaire I take a certain delight in it. I will still argue that watching certain animals hunting is a more beautiful dance than even the most complex of choreographed ballets.

It’s Gustave Doré again. This is one of his etching illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’. A poem about a hapless man lamenting the loss of his love, Lenore. It is a perfect example of the internal, psychological decadence I am speaking about. The ‘decline’ is in the mind, not the world. (Credit: Doré, Public Domain)

The decadent movement had its effects on the United States literary scene and one writer who I see showing this inevitable evolution from romanticism into decadence is Edgar Allan Poe. The interesting thing about his work is, having grown up in the US, a nation that despite its separation of Church and State is built upon a remarkably Christian ethic, is you get this development of an internal decadence.

He is most associated with a ‘gothic’ style – which is, in my opinion (I should state I’m not an art historian so most of this is bollocks) effectively the middle-ground between romanticism and decadence.

Romanticism, to me, is an overbearing joy of the individual self and one’s place in our beautiful, but sometimes cruel, natural system. Nature is mostly nurturing, and its cruelty provides balance.

Gothicism is the recognition of the true horrors of the cruelty of those systems, and the fear of our place within them. It is looking at the decay and realising that will be you one day. Nature can nurture, but mostly she’ll just hurt ya!

Decadence is realising since you will be nothing but decay one day there are only two things you can do; delight in it, or fight it. Nature is harm, everything is decaying.

So whilst many of Poe’s themes were definitely gothic, his consideration of the internal, especially in works like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ or ‘The Raven’ kind of brings to mind a psychological decadence. They are a study of, and raging against, this interior guilt (a very Christian motif). It is the mind as world-of-its-own, with an internal nature that is inevitably harmful and prone to decline, it is psychological decadence. It is recognising that time, life and experience will erode one’s brain, will decay one’s self and it is difficult to stop. What we do not do to ourselves, circumstance will likely inflict upon us.

It is this very Poeian (or Poesque…I’d prefer not to use poey!) style that wowed me with ‘The Bet’.

Yes, that was a long-winded bit of information but the point I want to get across is in my literary experience I am now throwing Vivienne Tuffnell around with names like Wilde, Poe, Swinburne and Baudelaire and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable comparison to make. I do not think she is out of place amongst those names.

I will tell you what, as a writer, Vivienne isn’t. She is not style-over-substance. She is very much a writer of themes and ideas and does not try to hide them behind larger-than-life characters or flowery words intended to confuse the lay reader and impress the critics. She is no-nonsense and I appreciate that directness. That is not to say she does not use imagery, she absolutely does, but what it means is when that imagery is used you know there is effect. It is there for a reason. She will not give a ten paragraph long description of a room unless the character of the room is important or relevant in some way, the mise-en-scène (the fancy word for stage settings, the stuff you ‘see’) are all very deliberate and meticulous.

You can never go wrong with a picture of an old church door and since churches feature heavily in ‘The Bet’, why not? This is the South door of the Church of St. Mary-in-the-fields, Badley, Suffolk. An amazing church, now no longer in use, off the beaten track by a good mile or so. The oldest parts date back to the early 13th century but, like many churches, it has seen significant addition and restoration over the years. (Credit: Spencer Means CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I mentioned Vivienne does not create larger-than-life characters. I have read three of her novels now and all of them are full of ‘normal’ people. There is nothing wrong with creating a larger-than-life character, James Bond should have been long-dead of venereal diseases and alcohol poisoning, if not his occupational hazards, and yet he endures for his larger-than-lifeness, and I appreciate the character. But what using more standard people allows you to do is focus more on the situation, and how that affects and shapes a character, rather than how your character affects the situation.

Vivienne is exceptional at this. I, myself, am a firm believer in having ordinary characters experiencing extraordinary circumstances mainly because I have more experience of it. I do not know if Vivienne feels the same, but she definitely uses the device well.  

So what Vivienne is great at is throwing you into a very real world, of very normal people, and then in comes the story, the disruption, and because these people are not superheroes, like most great drama, we want to know how they respond to these exceptional circumstances. Because they are ‘normal’ we can better relate and embody – rather than in character-driven fiction whereby the characters tend to be our fantasy.

There’s a slight post-modern lilt to ‘The Bet’ in that the story is told intermittently between past and present (no worries about confusion, ‘now’ and ‘then’ are used under the chapter numbers to make sure you don’t lose your place). Some people may find this a little jarring, or even unnecessary, but I think what it does is it allows the story to weave together. There’s a denouement, an ending, somewhere in the middle, but the weavers are working from both ends, slowly building this picture, over time.

We learn the horrors of Antony Ashurst’s immediate, present situation in the opening. From there we are given an opportunity to find out how it came to that and, again I’m not going to spoil too much here, but what Vivienne doesn’t use in big characters and big words she more than makes up for in big themes!

The themes, then, are birth, death, guilt, blood, life, sexual predation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, masculinity, sacrifice, growth, control, and ownership of self, strength, persistence, the inevitability of pain, of misery, of death, of decay, how that interacts with our will, our strength and persistence and our overall place within all these things.

…Obviously I vibe with this!

Maybe it’s not your cup of tea but frankly it was a full damn pot for me and I drank every drop.

How about some more Badley Church…Again, I just don’t know what images to put. A church definitely features in ‘The Bet’, it may be like this one in Badley! This really is a hidden treasure, with it’s austere interior, and those beautiful stained-glass windows (I believe they are 19th century, depicting scenes of the resurrection) (Credit: © Copyright Chris Holifield CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The fact that it pulls together these themes, surrounding this notion of the ‘Beautiful Boy’, this millennia old object of idolisation – and actually focuses on his character, is remarkable.

This sexual idol has been a device in poetry and in fiction in the past, but often the focus is on the idolater and not the idol, and where the focus is on the idol it is the idol as victim not as a human being with their own agency.

In ‘The Bet’ there is no doubt that Antony Ashurst is the main character and this is his story and it is a story not of a man shattered, a fragmented victim, but a man determined to wilfully piece himself back together after a succession of abuses, miseries and tragedies.

This book is about the strength of survivors.  

Within a few weeks I plan to give a full analysis of ‘The Bet’. But for now I wanted to give an introduction on the style, the themes, and the incredible power of it to encourage you to buy it. I wanted to give my impressions, how the overall presentation and themes really impacted me, without giving too much away.

I have no commercial arrangement with Vivienne. She is an online friend, and we have known each other around a decade now. I will not get a penny from promoting her book. If I visit her at any point in the near future she might provide me a warm bed and dinner but that’s about as far as any favours will go. So this is not sponsored content or anything like that.

I have known Vivienne a long time, and in that time I have seen significantly less deserving, significantly less talented writers have huge successes. It is considered bad form or etiquette in the writing business to talk about it, after all it would be bitter to begrudge anyone their success! But for anyone under the misunderstanding that writing is a meritocracy and ‘the best’ writers see the most success, you’re trippin’! Vivienne deserves more success, better status as a writer and bigger things.

Thankfully I am not in the literary writing business (anymore) and form and etiquette can suck it. I can stick two fingers up to the literary world, tell it it’s an elitist hell hole and that it does a disservice not only to the quantity, quality and diversity of our human artistic output but it does so for the sake of either money or elitist gatekeeping which means it can fuck off!

A lone sheep stands atop the hill and surveys the North York Moors. At some point, Antony Ashurst, a similar sacrifical offering(?) does much the same, and rests at a spot like this, and feels the thrum, the life and breath of the Earth around him. (Credit: Wigulf CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I apologise to Vivienne for taking so long to get around to reading more of her work. I’m not really a fiction guy! You might have noticed with my huge, mostly non-fiction website! But where a work of fiction punches me it really does land. ‘The Bet’ left me with a black eye and some cracked ribs.

I do not consider myself to have been a victim of abuse. I’ve been in some unsavoury situations but never have I felt the fear, the powerlessness, the invasion or the removal of agency. As a man, particularly, I have never felt the emasculation that I imagine is hard to live with for a lifetime.

This whole book is a study on masculinity, on masculine violence, on violence and abuse in general, on violence and abuse against young men in particular and it is just an excellent study on victims of both other people and of circumstance.

I encourage as many of you who think you might enjoy it to go and buy ‘The Bet’. It is available very cheaply on Kindle if you have one. The paperback is a very reasonable price too.

But as I mentioned before, I think this is a work very ahead of its time. I think in a world where power is equal, abuse of that power may be just as equal and I suspect in 50 years’ time this novel could be a fundamental go-to for male victims of sexual abuse, as an example of how other people, and our life circumstances, can harm us so much, and yet, for whatever damage done that may be beyond repair, we are never fully broken.

We are changed.

Continue to We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 1.

You can buy a copy of ‘The Bet’ HERE!

Or check out Vivienne Tuffnell’s other works at her author page HERE!

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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