Too busy shouting to hear the truth

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS by way of being a public apology to my friend Pascale, an intelligent, cultured and humane woman who one day went to church.

Let me begin in a Bloomsbury phone box. Among all the cards advertising New Young Oriental Model and Feel My 44DD's, Genuine Photo (yes, it's obviously a genuine photo, but is it a genuine photo of her?), one stands out as being so recondite as to be almost bizarre.

"Kissing Services", it says. I wonder who goes to visit her. The others - the ones advertising whipping and watersports, forced transvestism, medical practices, A, O, Swedish and Greek - I can understand. A man whose woman won't play might seek commercial solace from one who will. A man without a partner, and unwilling or unable (for reasons of shyness, ugliness, privacy, sloth or age) to find one, might be content to pay, as might a man with a taste for novel and uncommitted flesh.

But what sort of a man would pay to kiss or be kissed? Men, at least, can depersonalise sex at will; it is our strength and our greatest weakness. But a simple kiss is inextricably linked with affection and intimacy. What sort of man could delude himself into a parody of this symbol, and believe himself contented with the deal?

Well. We move now to a restaurant in Westminster where I find myself sitting at the next table from such a man. He is some kind of Tory apparatchik, a great bulging face like a peeled cantaloupe, crumpled grey suit, blotchy rash on his upper lip from cheap shaving, inexpressible self-regard. He is honking away in one of those abominable strangulated bogus public-school bleats; cannot be more than 27; patronising his woman companion, pretending to know everything. You know the sort: John Major's just going to sit this one out ... James is a very good man, everyone agrees ... game-plan ... mood of the country ... research committee has assured itself that ... bound for a safe seat and then straight to the top ... yadda yadda yadda. And watching him twatting away, overriding the woman opposite, valving off, so full of himself, so empty, you could see what he was, what he had been, what he would become. The unpopular boy at school, the one who never had a girlfriend, who never learnt to connect, who took refuge in the patronising imbecilities of politics, the one buried so deep within his own self-regard that he no longer realises his terrible absurdity.

And so the future unfolds: the marginal seat first, the safe seat next, the committees and surgeries and sneaky visits to basement flats near Goodge Street tube, stopping by the cashpoint on the way. Kissing Services.

Such men cannot bear their need. For centuries - for millennia - they have run the world, and most of the time we just don't notice. "Things have changed," we think; "We've got better, the old injustices have been driven away," and we laugh at the 1950s guides on How To Be The Perfect Wife, which, 40-odd years on, read like a laughable contract for kinky fantasies. Be a little gay ... catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction ... show sincerity in your desire to please ... speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice ... remember he is the master and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness ... you have no right to question him ... a good wife always knows her place. Yes! Good slave! You have pleased Me; now bare your back for a whipping...

How we laugh! And then something comes along to wipe the smile from our face. This time, it was a chapter in Simon Singh's book, Fermat's Last Theorem, in which he tells the story of Sophie Germain, a French mathematician, born in 1776. Her work on number theory, and particularly on prime numbers, was brilliant and innovative, yet she was forced to masquerade as a Monsieur Le Blanc, particularly in her correspondence with the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. When her cover was finally blown, Gauss wrote to her, not angrily, as her previous experiences had led her to fear, but expressing "my admiration and astonishment," and adding "... when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudice, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarise herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius."

Read it, and weep.

And so Pascale went to church. Just happened to be passing. St Martin's- in-the-Fields. The priest was a woman; Pascale was moved, went to the altar-rails, took communion. Rang me to talk about it, and I denounced the whole thing. Patristic theology, do you see? The whole thing is a logical structure; you accept it all or you reject it all; you can't take the bits of it you like; pure sentimentality; contemptible.

Boy, was I pleased with myself: Monsignor Bywater, the celebrated Roman apologist, lost his own faith years ago but still maintains detached, logical rigour: what a mentsh! What a pair of balls on the man! What a shlong!

What a phoney. Proof? Logic? Detachment? No. Proof, logic, detachment: these were what mathematicians like Sophie Germain could do. What I was doing was what men do: dressing up prejudices in a structure of bogus authority. Hey! I have a Y-chromosome! I know best!

Ven der putz shteht, as the old proverb has it, light der sechel in drerd: when the prick stands up, the brains lie down and die. Cantaloupe-face in the restaurant in his way, me in mine, both after the same thing, the good old self-deluding, repressive parody. Kissing Services.

And it was only much later that I heard what Pascale had said, that it wasn't about orthodoxy, it wasn't about religion, it wasn't even really about God. "It was her sermon," she said, in the middle of my denunciations. "Can you understand what it means to hear a woman speak, and be heard, without having to raise her voice?" No. I'm sorry. No; I was too busy shouting. !