An activity that makes politicians go blind

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS something rather moving about the last public pronouncement of James Ferman, the man who, for the past 23 years, has been watching filth on our behalf as director of the British Board of Film Classification. Beleaguered on all sides by Hollywood, Mrs Whitehouse, the "adult entertainment" industry, JG Ballard and Tory backbenchers, Ferman has spoken up, in his final report, for sex's great silent majority. "The fact is that we have more... people living alone," he wrote. "Many of these people have a sex life which is vicarious. It is the safest sex there is - solitary sex."

Setting aside the question of whether this vicarious activity really is restricted to the bedsits of Singleton (statistics in this area are thought to be generally unreliable), it is surely a key moment in our social history when a respected public figure speaks up proudly on behalf of that previously neglected figure, the humble tosser.

For some reason, home secretaries have tended to be reluctant to accept publicly the right of individuals to vicarious sex. "They have to take questions over the dispatch box and even those asking the questions get embarrassed," Ferman revealed - and who could be surprised?

It would take courage for anyone to speak up on behalf of tossers; for such image-conscious smoothies as Kenneth Baker or Michael Howard, it would be sheer agony. Even Willie Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd, who attended Eton where solitary activity is virtually part of the standard curriculum, have avoided any public statement.

Is it too optimistic to think that the 1998 Ferman Pronouncement, as historians will call it, may launch a new liberation movement? That, from households all over the country - the stately home, the suburban maisonnette, the council flat - activists will rise and march on London, gathering in Hyde Park beneath Tosser Pride banners? That a new symbol of erotic freedom, perhaps the black power fist tilted 90 degrees, will appear on hoardings and walls? That, as significant as any campaign on behalf of ramblers, the Queen's Speech will embrace the right to toss?

There is a problem. Solo enthusiasts are, by their nature, unlikely to want to join a mass movement. Indeed, it is no co-incidence that in recent years those most ardently committed to the pursuit have been practitioners of that other solitary pursuit, novel-writing.

Such has been the obsession with this subject, ever since Philip Roth made such a splash with Portnoy's Complaint in 1969, that it seems almost certain that in some English faculty a young scholar is already working on a PhD entitled The Tosser in Late Twentieth Century Fiction.

It was Anthony Burgess who, post-Roth and our own British response, A Hand-Reared Boy, revealed to Playboy magazine in 1977 that the working novelist invariably became sexually excited and would need to "go into the bathroom". Subsequently Burgess would startle Radio 4 interviewers by revealing that most writers were "at it like monkeys".

But, as is so often the case, it was Martin Amis who brought the subject to prominence, first making it an underlying theme of his novel London Fields and then becoming involved in an unseemly literary feud with the American author Nicolson Baker as to which of them had first coined the descriptive phrase "thrumming".

Baker won by sheer persistence. He wrote two novels devoted to the practice, and, in U & I, his homage to John Updike, boasted of frequent and successfull thrumming to scenes in Iris Murdoch novels. Not even Amis could compete.

Where fiction leads, academia follows. Geoff Dyer's recent study of DH Lawrence is said to contain a confessional solo scene on a beach. In Naim Attallah's latest collection of interviews, Sir Kenneth Dover, the Greek scholar and Chancellor of St Andrew's University, breezily admitted that he was once so overwhelmed by the beauty of a hill in Italy that he was obliged to celebrate in the most appropriate and intimate fashion.

But enough scholarship. The fact is that, on all sides, novelists, academics and film censors are calling for government action. By supreme good fortune, the whole area of tosser rights falls within the remit of Jack Straw, one of the heroes of the Government's front bench. Where Baker, Howard, Hurd and Whitelaw sat on their hands, Straw can grab the baton from Amis, Dover and Ferman.

Will he have the courage to stand at the dispatch box and bring thrumming out of the bathroom at long last? History will judge him by this moment.