THE suzi feay COLUMN

4 Cock Lane is the only street where brothels once operated. `So why isn't it called Fanny Lane?' demands Mark unanswerably 4

"HELP, we've been kidnapped by an itinerant pedant," Mark Simpson mutters in my ear. Why are we standing hunched and dripping in a Holborn alley listening to a man with a grizzled ponytail explain the difference between insurance and assurance? It was all my idea. Mark's new book is out, and since this rite-of-passage in a boy's life should not go unmarked, we have decided to go on a columnists' day out, to indulge in our favourite sport: Laughing At Sad People.

But as Mark's collected columns in It's a Queer World point out, sad people have a way of laughing back. His investigation of "the twilight world of the heterosexual" has sent him hunting sex in Soho, going on a stag night, enduring Roy "Chubby" Brown and visiting the Motor Show. Who else would spot the queer resonance of Morecambe and Wise ("cardigan- wearing bachelors with a passion for Shirley Bassey and musicals"), Reeves and Mortimer ("one of the great comedy homo romances") and, heaven forfend, Ren and Stimpy ("flagrant anality ... mad, bad and totally pervy"). And the stuff that doesn't get written down is just as memorable, like his observation, after interviewing Suede's drummer and lead singer, "a master- slave relationship, if ever I saw one", and his verdict on exhibitionist lesbian activists: "Now there's a group of people who haven't come to terms with the fact that their sex organs are on the INSIDE."

I want to lug him along on a Jack the Ripper walk, but there isn't one on, so we plump for "Hangings and Hauntings: Historic Holborn", a title with aspirations if nothing else. I am so solicitous about getting him to the assignation on time that he asks tartly if I'm to be his mummy for the day. It's the Hen and Simpy show ...

It's chucking it down, but Simpy is sporting a rather fetching hood. "My weather eye told me it would rain today," he gloats. Turns out he was a deckhand for a year after running away from beastly, male-dominated Oriel in his first term. But we can't go into this interesting topic, as our guide is droning unstoppably on: "Does anybody remember the Man from the Pru? I know I do!" "I wonder how many punters he'd get if this walk was called Facts about Insurance Companies," grizzles Simpy. We drift towards the City at an agonising, slow pace, bombarded with facts about war memorials, the difference between the uniforms of the Met and City police, the free Gresham lectures in rhetoric and geometry, and the ancient livery companies.

This is desperate. I try to pay up so we can escape with a good conscience, but the guide insists he will only take money at the end of the tour. "Well, we might have to go before the end," I say. "We have to get to the London Dungeon before it shuts." "You won't get there now," he asserts. "It's down by London Bridge. You need to allow four to five hours for that. Don't skimp things," he winds up, brusquely. "Oh, let's just make a run for it," mutters Simpy. "I don't care if we piss him off. I hate him." But our guide has got eyes in the back of his head. Like rebellious kids on a school trip, our only recourse now is subversion. Simpy muses aloud about the potential for cottaging in the magnificent Edwardian conveniences we keep passing: "All those aldermen, with their rough trade forever delivering consignments round the tradesman's entrance." And, in the non-conformist temple by the Viaduct, we are momentarily diverted from our guide's lecture on Methodism by the sight of a functionary dragging up the aisle a crude, home-made cross, with lacerating twigs and thorns still attached. Kinky!

Then we traipse to Cock Lane, the only street where licenced brothels once operated. "So why isn't it called Fanny Lane?" demands Mark unanswerably. What with the car fumes, the noise and the rebuilding, the palimpsest of the past has been almost completely typed and Tipp-Exed over. The Wren Church is shut, the Saracen's Head has been demolished, a nosy janitor wants to know what we're doing outside "his" office building. Our guide is equally proprietorial about history, warning us off London's hordes of disreputable guides who "just make things up". "What does he think history IS?" fumes Mark. Finally, he grudgingly accepts our money and we escape in a cab.

One traffic jam later, we arrive at the London Dungeon. This milestone in the kitschification of state-power is entirely staffed by extras from a Motley Crue video. Here, bodies dangle from nooses, perch atop crepe- paper bonfires, and twitch on racks. "Walk This Way!" screeches a Dickensian urchin in flapping britches and battered top hat, doing a hideous Aerosmith prance, before announcing "Last Jack the Ripper Experience of the day," and scuttling off into the vaulted gloom. Guttering candles can't obscure the grime, tattiness and over-enthusiastic use of red paint. The Ripper victims are seedily effective, though: sprawled awkwardly, coming to terms with the fact that their sexual organs are on the outside. All around us are Germans and Japanese, getting off on sadism.

There is only one way to return swiftly to late-20th century Britain, and we do it: we go over the road and have a baguette with pommes frites in a mock French bistro.

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