It happened at the end of a busy week, in the quiet, relaxed atmosphere of a classy rural restaurant. Half-way through our main course, what I came to regard as a human appetite suppressant sidled into the midst of six men at a nearby table, raising their glasses to 'a happy retirement'. During an otherwise enjoyable dish of hot, sauce-covered salmon, I was confronted by the distinctly distasteful sight of a complete stranger suddenly being stripped to the waist, his flabby paunch rising in anticipation, as the strippagram 'nurse' in attendance urged him to lick his way through the foam liberally masking her mammaries.
I could feel the anger rising in my throat. How dare this restaurant assume that everyone else would want to witness these ridiculous antics without any prior warning? It's not that I'm a prude. When rampant sex scenes tumble into our sitting-room via the small screen, far from diving for the off-button, I often make them a constructive talking point with my two teenagers. Topless sunbathing, given the right place, is a pleasure. Years ago, occasional evenings out with an older friend were interrupted while she stripped to a G-string and gyrated round the audience at a club dance.
The thread linking all these activities is choice. Choice was clearly not regarded as important enough to place on the menu at that rural restaurant. Had the ubiquitous camcorder cut away to the rest of the dining room, it would have captured a look of general discomfort. It would also have revealed the visible pressure the man with the paunch was under to participate in front of his peers.
His retirement video could have zoomed in on the embarrassed glances being exchanged between one young couple, who let go of each other's hands the moment they were faced with expanses of bare flesh over their paillettes d'oignons frits. It could have picked up two women debating whether to leave the room in protest, thereby ruining their own evening. It could have captured our joint astonishment that in a recession, a restaurant of this calibre could afford potential damage to its reputation.
I later wrote to the proprietors, asking them to consider the impact an event like this might have. When there was no reply after two weeks, I telephoned. This was the crux of the conversation:
'I can assure you this sort of thing won't happen again.'
'But why did you allow it to happen at all?
'We didn't know it was going to happen until the day.'
'But why inflict a strippagram on everyone else?'
'We offered them a private room, but they didn't want to be away from the main dining area.'
'So they were given choice and the rest of us weren't?'
'Well, the man retiring is a good customer.'
'So sod the rest of us, it seems.'
'We had no idea it would offend anyone.'
Licensees and restaurateurs, please note. Take Jane, for example, a solicitor's wife who was reduced to tears at an office Christmas party when 'sex was practically rammed down her husband's throat' during the main course. Diners, including 10- and 11- year-olds, had no choice but to witness the 'fat, ugly French maid' advancing towards him with foamy breasts ready to envelop her prey.
Andy, a 21-year-old photographer, 'hated the experience' when a 20- stone topless strippagram revealed herself to him in another crowded restaurant. Still angry, he says: 'The last thing anyone wants when they're paying to eat out is someone dropping their trousers and crawling around on all fours being encouraged to grab at some woman's garters. It's humiliating for a lot of people present, let alone for the recipient. That's why I refused to comply.'
Debbie, a 17-year-old sixth-former, felt 'cheap and humiliated' when a strippagram vicar turned up at her birthday party. She recalls: 'As a regular churchgoer I found the fact that he was dressed like that offensive. He was also short, bald and bearded which really made me cringe. With everyone standing round me outside it was really claustrophobic. I seriously felt like throwing up. He got very stroppy when I told him to go, and grabbed hold of me. He was definitely pressurising me in a sexual sense. In the end I ran indoors and fell up the stairs in tears trying to get away. Then the anger came.' Debbie, who describes herself as 'a jokey sort of person,' had emphatically told schoolfriends: 'No strippagrams.'
Like those on the periphery (my son and others walked away because of Debbie's embarrassment, and their own), when the moment came she had no choice. She, too, was compromised.
Within the protection of the British workplace, unwanted attention of a sexual nature can land offenders on a charge of gross misconduct. Legislation allows redress for sexual harassment. In the public arena, it would appear that we have to tough it out because of others' insensitivity.
To foist such antics on to customers in any environment is entirely unreasonable. Where licences have to be applied for to allow singing and dancing, it seems ludicrous that a complete stranger can simply walk in off the street and remove nearly all their clothes. It is the managers of pubs, social clubs and restaurants who have the choice in this scenario.
They could ban strippagrams, or at least confine them to private rooms. The tee-hee factor has worn thin. After Lucky the alsatian wagged his tail at that blonde, she was quoted as saying: 'It was the strangest job I've ever had, but everyone had a great time.' I wonder . . .