I used boxing gloves in my second year at school in White River, and although they were not the boxing glove that would have been familiar to the Plinys – the cestus, a leather device which strapped a large hunk of iron or lead or even nails to the fist – I regarded them with the same fear as if they were.
We had been encouraged to join the boxing club by Jimmy Blighton senior, a Cockney garage mechanic at the Shell Garage in Plaston, whose two boys, Jimmy junior and Billy, ap-proximated Raymond and me in age. He came from that working-class London background which favoured boxing, dog racing and cock-fighting, and his children were natural fighters. Once a week we would journey by car to Nelspruit, where there was a boxing ring set up beside the municipal swimming pool. Here I would don shorts and a vest and the boxing gloves, and, for a terrifying half an hour, would try to parry and evade attempts by bigger and more aggressive boys to hit me in the face. Anton, naturally, had been a superb boxer and made fitful and irritable attempts to show us how it was done, but I could never tell a jab from a lunge, and did not develop any defensive technique beyond hunching myself into a ball with the gloves over my face.
At the end of the year there was a tournament, the prospect of which terrified me. Above all, I feared being matched with Billy Blighton, who would have pulped me, but on the night they put me up against a tiny boy whom I had never seen before. Finally released from fear, I proceeded to beat him without mercy, the two of us being pulled apart from time to time by the ref who said unintelligible things to me in Afrikaans. The fight was soon over, and I lost – disqualified for head-butting. After that, we never went back.
Cestus, it turns out, means something that is wound onto the body, and in the classical repertoire of phylacteries and strap-ons, the most famous cestus of all was that belonging to Aphrodite, who is described as ‘wearing that cestus of hers around her waist, spreading the scent of cinnamon and dampening the air with balsam.’ The Girdle of Venus, embroidered with images of all that inflames sexual desire, becomes by projection desire itself. When the goddess talks of her lover Ares, she says: ‘I do not fear [his] strength; it will not tire me to flog him when he is bound by the delightful cestus.’
The cestus becomes a whip, a goad and finally a boxing glove, as when Dionysos the Earth-Shaker, wooing Beroe, daughter of Venus and Adonis, was ‘beaten by the blows of the cestus’. The power of this girdle is that whoever wears it comes to seem attractive, desirable, irresistible. Anton would have been lethal with a pair of Roman gladiatorial boxing gloves like the ones illustrated above, and if a boxing tournament could somehow be arranged between all the characters in this work, he would undoubtedly win. But against the cestus of desire he was helpless, perhaps even a willing victim. This helplessness against the blows of Aphrodite’s girdle is a trait shared, to a greater or lesser extent, by all the characters in this book.