A dip in the porn channel

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The Independent Culture
MY CAREER as a merchant of pornography was brief, but satisfying and lucrative. When I was in the first year at secondary school, it was my incredible good fortune to find, in the alley where we used to smoke and train-spot, the instruction slip that comes with a packet of Durex; I knew immediately that what I had was worth something, and so it proved. For two days or so, there was a queue of boys at my desk before registration and at break-time clamouring to read the astonishingly frank advice: 'Unroll over erect penis. Put the condom on before there is any contact between penis and vagina.' Erect] Penis] Vagina] Contact] Between] These instructions were so hot that even the prepositions smouldered] My class-mates (and then year-mates, and then school-mates, as word spread) goggled, and giggled, and gasped, and shook their heads at the sheer . . . filth of the document; in our moral universe, the soppy naturist magazine Health and Efficiency was as disgusting as it had previously ever got. I didn't charge people for a look, but in the end I sold the thing outright (for much more, somebody told me, than the price of a three-pack), and in any case you couldn't put a value on the respect and esteem that was temporarily mine.

I didn't have that much to do with smut after that. I found the relevant pages in my father's Harold Robbins paperbacks, needless to say (I even managed to find relevant pages in my own Arthur Hailey paperbacks - Airport was a key text in my sexual education), and I had no idea who Bertolucci was when I went to see Last Tango In Paris. But, like a lot of men, I began to feel uncomfortable about girly mags in my mid-to-late teens, when I started to feel less uncomfortable about girls. Previously I had imagined adulthood as a time which I would spend not going to the dentist, not being thrown out of pubs, and browsing through Parade and Playboy without shame in W H Smith; when I got there, however, I realised that this last was not what one did. I could find cool people who smoked, and drank, and took drugs, the other activities that offered light at the end of puberty's dark tunnel, but girly mags, they were for middle-aged saddos, not for upright, right-on young men.

Anyway, it wasn't as if anyone of my generation had to choose between being right-on and copping an eyeful. In the Seventies you could read Bukowski and Henry Miller, and you could watch Ai No Corrida, and Donald Sutherland doing it with Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, and nobody would think any the less of you for it; then you could move on, if you so wished, to Milan Kundera and Nicholson Baker, (whose forthcoming novel The Fermata is straight porn, but, you know, ironic straight porn) and Russ Meyer, who makes films about huge breasts but is OK, apparently, because he has 'the most dynamic editing style in American cinema' (according to Time Out), and . . . well, more or less everybody. There cannot be many men or women of my age or younger, with my (unremarkable) cultural habits, who have felt short-changed on the full frontal front. I have certainly never thought to myself, 'Damn, I wish I was less snooty about smut. Then I would have got to see more women with their kit off.' I have seen squillions of women with their kit off, and wasn't even trying.

I knew that hard porn was a huge industry, of course, but I had presumed that the other stuff, the two-bob Carry On Breast-Baring stuff unleavened by irony or dynamic editing styles, had been rendered more or less obsolete by the sex explosion of the last 25 years. Surely there weren't men who needed to see even more than they were already getting from their tabloid newspapers and their TV sets and their local Odeons? And if there were, surely these men were pariahs, forced to sneak off somewhere unspeakable and shaming to indulge themselves? I was being hopelessly nave; I had no idea that respectable hotels indulged these poor inadequates, that their pathetic desire to watch women rolling around in the nude was regarded as legitimate, like the need to have your shoes cleaned, or papers delivered to your room.

Let's out these places. Last summer I stayed in the Ramada Renaissance, a Manchester hotel that right-minded, Independent-men and women might think twice about patronising; after 8pm, they thoughtfully lay on two or three short films about underwear parties that turn into lesbian romps, or handymen who come to fix the house and the housewife. OK, here's the difficult bit, the old 'I watched 712 of these films and I was appalled' routine, but I did (well, two, anyway), and I was; and I know nobody forced me to watch them, but I was bored, and there was nothing on the telly, and I wanted to see what a soft porn film was like because I'd never seen one (and I know how this sounds, but what can I say, apart from sorry?), and I was astonished. Not by the nature of the material - anyone who watched, say, The Buddha of Suburbia or The Men's Room on TV would have seen more, in all senses of the word - but by the dismal, hopeless, ludicrous ineptitude of it.

It was British, for a start, which didn't help ('Is tharrit then?' said the housewife to the handyman afterwards, and the line wasn't even bathetic), and it looked like a home video, and the music sounded as though it had been taped straight off a Nintendo Gameboy, and the actors looked bored silly, and the script was preposterous, and . . . What was I expecting? I don't know. But the Ramada is not a cheap hotel, as my publishers will testify, so how come they have ended up showing such cheap and ridiculous films? Is it just because there are enough people like me, whose curiosity will sucker them into paying the surcharge? Or is it by public demand? And if so, when did hotel proprietors start to take this kind of demand seriously, rather than treat it with lofty disdain? When did the taste for tatty, grubby soft porn become just another lifestyle option?

In the morning I tried to wait at the reception desk while my colleague settled the tell-tale bill, but in the end I found myself examining some posters right up at the other end of the lobby. I'm not ashamed of feeling ashamed, though; at least I had the decency to feel indecent. I felt, in fact, like a little boy with a Durex instruction slip in his pocket, which is precisely how I should have been feeling. How strange that adult films can return you so swiftly to childhood. -

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