Sex and transcendence at Stringfellow's

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The Independent Culture
EVERYTHING was fine until the stripper came out of the cake. Well... I say "stripper", but she was actually pre-stripped, or at any rate as stripped as she was going to get; the usual kit: stockings, suspenders, G-string and bra, all white, and out of the last item there poked (or swelled) two ideal creamy breasts.

They were so perfectly packaged and ready-to-eat that my first reaction was to look for the bar-code and the sell-by date. My second reaction was to stupefy myself with a long, dull interior monologue about the semiotics of lingerie, in the course of which I concluded that Ann Summers has got it all wrong; any female underwear clearly designed to be seen is thereby reduced to the same level of sexual charge as the serving suggestion on a frozen-food packet.

The flashbulbs popped and the stripper climbed out of the cake (which was no more a cake than the stripper was a stripper, of course, otherwise she would have been all covered in cake and jam and buttercream, which would have been amusing, if, like me, you happen to have a weakness for l'amour de la patisserie), sat down next to me, and carefully snuggled her breasts back inside their respective cups. I was sorry to see them go; they had an innocent charm, like a pair of clean puppies with their pink, questing snouts.

So she looked at me and I looked at her, and I couldn't think of a single thing to say. Not: "Hello, I'm Michael." Not: "What do you do while you're hiding in the cake waiting to come out?" Not even: "Well, that was a treat." Nothing. I just sat there, dapper as buggery in my solara-cloth lounge suit, soft pique shirt, and a face like a fish

It had been a hard decision to make. When, the day before, Marcelle had rung up and said, "Would you like to come to Peter Stringfellow's birthday party?" my instant response was: "What shall I wear?" It was all very well to be taken to Peter Stringfellow's birthday party, but I wanted to make sure I dressed in such a way that it was quite clear that I was not the sort of person who went to Peter Stringfellow's birthday party. I toyed with the heather-mixture Donegal; briefly contemplated the old grey-flannel-trousers-and-trusty-writing-coat routine; flirted wickedly ("Hahahaha!") with the black leather jacket and steel-toed boots; but, in the end, the solara-cloth lounge won the day.

I knew it was the right decision the minute the goons on the door ushered us into the pulsating stroboscopic Gehenna that is Stringfellow's. There were girls with big hair and girls with long legs; boys in shorts, boys in codpieces, boys in frocks. There was rubber and leather, stilettos and thigh-boots, tits and biceps, gleaming teeth and glittering eyes. It was a drumbeat inferno, a bubbling stew of pheromones and beauty products: a designer purgatory, sponsored by Laboratoires Garnier.

Peter Stringfellow, fiftysomething that very day, embraced us warmly, expressing delight that we could come and sorrow that we were late and thus would be temporarily exiled to a corner behind the upstairs band (skilled pasticheurs in asynchronous combat with the road-gang disco downstairs). As we were being schmoozed, the diminutive, Miyake-clad figure of Larry Adler crept delicately away (80-odd, for heaven's sake, and should have been in bed hours ago) and his table was pounced upon by two arse-faced business types in Club Class suits, doomed to spend the rest of the evening hopelessly tumescent, bug-eyed, and slowly deliquescing in a puddle of drool.

I was glad of my solara-cloth lounge. Like an astronaut in his bubble helmet, I was carrying my own atmosphere with me and need not fear sudden debilitation from this alien air; I still had my wits about me, and could picture all the artifice being so hopefully applied in Archway bedsits and flatshares in Balham; I could foresee the terrible disillusion of going home with someone, only to find that all the bits you found most beguiling are removed before bed.

Presently restored to the High Table, watching Stringfellow smiling and schmoozing, theoretically absurd in his feather-cut and his Thai silk dungarees, I knew I should be thinking: "Pathetic at his age; why doesn't he stop messing about and get himself a solara-cloth lounge?" but instead I found myself admiring a man doing his work and doing it supremely well. Watching him party is like listening to Ivo Pogorelich play: you might hate the music, but the execution is breathtaking.

And then the table was pushed back and the pre-stripped stripper burst out of her cardboard cake and everyone posed for a bit and then the civilians, the paying customers, flocked around the table and just... stood there, staring. They just... stood there.

They looked at Stringfellow. They looked at the rest of us. But what they were really looking at was glamour, money, sex, fun: a world where Tufnell Park did not exist, where there was no Abbey National, no Roding Valley, no shaky jobs in hairdressing salons on the North Circular Road: a Saturday night world, indefinitely prolonged.

And they were sharing in it. They were both audience and performers. I made my choice years ago: that I'd find my exaltations by more austere routes. But transcendence is transcendence, however you get it, and these people were as uplifted by this blasted night-club as I have ever been by Handel, Dante or the sodding Higgs Boson. Here in my room at 4.17am (the whole street asleep, just me and my Tango doll wide-eyed and fretful), it occurs to me that the main difference is that their method includes the chance of getting laid. Perhaps, by not letting me talk to the stripper, my unconscious mind was trying to protect me from that terrible realisation, and very wise of it too. Anything might have happened. I can see the headlines: "Liberal Humanist In Solara Cloth West End Night Club Cake Strip". No, no. It would never do... would it? !