Book review / Doctor off the boil

The Alarming History of Sex by Richard Gordon, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
In the innocent days before hospital Trusts and Cardiac Arrest, people would chortle over Richard Gordon's saucy medical comedies: Doctor in the House, Doctor on the Boil, Doctor in the Nude and so on. The British film industry leapt upon these stories with delight and produced numerous movies featuring the young Dirk Bogarde and a succession of pert starlets in starched uniforms. Later films starred the more convincingly libidinous Leslie Phillips, and were followed by a television series; but after publishing 16 "Doctor" novels, Gordon moved on. He became a regular contributor to Punch and produced a large number of other books, mostly comic.

As one might expect, therefore, his new book belongs on those dispiriting shelves labelled "Humour". Epigraphs taken from Sir Thomas Browne, Plato, Tennyson, Bacon and Rabelais raise false hopes that Gordon's history will be scholarly as well as funny but the first chapter, a laborious "fable" about God in his "delightful riverside garden at Eden", instantly quells them.

The Alarming History of Sex is neither alarming, nor a history of sex. Cobbled together almost entirely from secondary and well-mined sources, it takes the form of a brisk stroll along the dusty corridors of the past, with occasional pauses to look at such subjects as the wives of Henry VIII, the numerous suitors of Elizabeth I, the mistresses of Napoleon and Wellington, Queen Victoria and John Brown, Jack theRipper, Hitler ("Sex Heil!") and - for some reason - Victorian sanitation.

A chapter entitled "The Myth of Feminism" outlines the history of women's suffrage - largely confined to the story of Emily Davison and the king's horse. Another, "Virgin Territory", contains some vaguely relevant remarks about chastity and chivalry, but ends with two sections devoted to "The Virgin Islands" (size, location, history, climate etc) and "The Virginals" ("a favourite domestic instrument of the 16th and early 17th centuries").

When not padding out his text with such digressions, Gordon simply rehashes old stories and subjects: W T Stead and "The Maiden Tribute of Babylon", Dr William Acton and his obsession with the evils of masturbation, Freud and the unconscious. The bibliography for the chapter on "A Sexual Empire" credits Ronald Hyam's Empire and Sexuality, but there is little here to suggest Gordon has profited by reading that wonderfully informative book. Unrewarding speculation as to whether Victoria was "Queen Chatterley" continues for several pages, while prostitution in Victorian London is dealt with in two paragraphs, and with no reference to Henry Mayhew's celebrated London Labour and the London Poor (1861), which contains an exhaustive chapter on the subject.

Occasionally Gordon concentrates upon the matter in hand (as it were): there is a mildly interesting discussion of the hydraulic workings of the penis, gruesome descriptions of female "circumcision", and a brief account of "How to Change Your Sex". This last section, which includes details of what reconstructive surgery actually involves, opens characteristically with some remarks about homosexuality, which even Gordon reluctantly concedes has nothing to do with transsexualism. Still, it had to go in somewhere, didn't it? The book concludes with a string of largely feeble "sexy jokes" and another "fable" in which God decides to cancel the "sex urge".

The book has a high quota of dud aphorisms ("A sin stretched universally spins a soft hair-shirt") and some truly dreadful sentences: "In 1934, 400,000 condoms a week were being manufactured in Britain - which, the unmarried Bishop of London informed the House of Lords, he wished to make a bonfire of and dance around - a minute supply to furnish the copulation of an Empire." Attempts to breathe new life into old cliches, and cram more information into a sentence than it can comfortably hold, founder badly: "The public-school Empire builder, who cut his sexual teeth on the ubiquitous servant girls (until the last quarter of the century, these had not taken to the spreading fashion of wearing knickers), once overseas was freed from middle-class prudery and found the world his succulent sexual oyster."

Despite the fact that The AlarmingHistory of Sex is brief, has no index, no illustrations, and displays no evidence of editorial intervention, the publisher still expects the public to fork out 20 quid for it. Punters could find better ways of spending their money.