"We received some publicity material. It seemed all right," says a man from Bookseller magazine. "But now I'm here I sort of feel as if I'm in a different world."
We are awaiting the arrival of Miss Marianne Martindale, promoter of the book. When she finally arrives, it is clear that the man from Bookseller has summed up the situation with perfect accuracy.
Miss Martindale walks into the boardroom, swinging a long cigarette holder containing a pink Sobranie. She is wearing a fur coat, and a Forties black hat with a pheasant feather perched perkily on the brim. She has wing- tipped glasses from which dangle a gold chain. Behind the glasses, her eyelids are weighed down with layers of bright blue eye shadow and long, false eyelashes.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," she begins in a voice characterised by high-pitched, perfect vowels circa 1950. "I wish to introduce you to something completely new. It is one of those things so obvious, so natural, so fundamental ... one is surprised that it has not been done over and over again." She pauses, for effect. "The subject of discipline - corporal punishment, spanking, caning and so forth - is of perennial interest."
The man from Bookseller shifts nervously and looks at the table. Miss Martindale continues to smile and read her speech; and as she does, it becomes clear that her book is hardly the stuff of serious literary magazines.
"The book examines," continues Miss Martindale, "the different types of cane and how they should be used. The many and varied methods of spanking in the detail that they so richly deserve. There are clear and precise instructions on the use of the strap
The book is called The Female Disciplinary Manual. It is the latest publication from the Wildfire Club, an organisation run by Miss Martindale and her colleagues, all "ladies passionately interested in discipline". The Female Disciplinary Manual purports to be a "complete guide to the correction and chastisement of young ladies".
Written in a clipped tone reminiscent of a classic Fifties schoolbook, the Manual discusses variations on "old-fashioned discipline" in grim detail. Want to know how long the disciplinary cane is? Compound punishments? The use of the strap? Turn to page 80, where you will learn that "the strap is much less dangerous to use than the cane. If you do catch the wrist or thumb, it will do no real harm".
According to Miss Martindale, this "serious, intelligent book" is designed for "mistresses" to administer to "girls". This does not exclude anyone over 18. In Miss Martindale's world, any woman can become a "gal", or a mistress, or sometimes both. "It took me 20 years to flower as a mistress in our world," says Miss Martindale. "Oh yes, Miss Millard." She eyes me markedly.
"We live in a country called Aristasia. It's a feminine version of the Greek Aristos, meaning the best. Actually, it's a house near Epping Forest, ha ha ha." Miss Martindale delivers a finely controlled peal of silvery laughs. The press conference starts looking slightly uncomfortable. "Between three and six of us live there at a time. It is the embassy for the entire world of Aristasia, ha ha ha."
The "perfect world" is a collection of six or seven Aristasian "houses" across the country, all similarly inhabited by "mistresses", "maidservants" and "girls"; all with schoolrooms, uniforms, lessons, and most importantly, discipline. "But we have no Silly Monkeys. Now you know what I'm talking about, Miss Millard," says Miss Martindale sternly. "Silly Monkeys. Think of the initials, ha ha ha. No, none of that. We live in an aesthetic world, a sensuous world, an artistic world. Not a sexual world."
As far as etiquette goes, Miss Martindale is conducting the press conference impeccably. She addresses everyone by their proper names. She falls over herself to be polite. She offers us biscuits. She tinkles with more laughter as she explains the joyful anti-modernist lifestyle of the Aristasians. Miss Martindale has driven to the Hotel Russell in a Wolsey 1660. In Aristasian homes, there is no video or television. For entertainment, they watch Fifties cartoons and newsreels on a cine-camera. Likewise, none has any books or music dating after 1960. No salaciousness here. Meanwhile, Miss Martindale talks of a business offshoot selling "canes and straps", and the fact that "girls" who like discipline can ring up and talk about it.
Is Martindale her real name, I ask? "Oh, ha ha ha," she trills. "That would be telling." It certainly would; in fact, the truth behind Miss Martindale's jolly little publication, and her "purifying" pursuit of a so-called glamorous lifestyle is not quite as friendly as it first appears.
The press release happily admits that Miss Martindale's former job was as headmistress of St Bride's "school", Co Donegal. The idea behind St Brides, which opened in 1984, was that adult "girls" could come as paying guests for holidays in which, along with some permanent residents, they could "experience the virtues of an old-fashioned childhood".
Life at St Bride's was, if nothing else, positively Dickensian. Maids, dressed in Victorian uniform, would answer the door and usher guests into rooms dimly lit by candlelight. In the schoolrooms, rows of tiny desks stood before blackboards. Bamboo canes were clearly in evidence.
Miss Martindale was proud of creating a "romantic retreat" where people could "be gracious and demure Victorians". Or, rather, Miss Clare Tyrrell, which she forgot to mention was then her name. Indeed, Miss Martindale seems to have forgotten quite a lot about the school, including the controversy that surrounded it in 1993 when the building's landlords found material produced by neo-Nazi organisations and the sado-masochistic sex industry. Silly Monkeys, indeed. Anti-Semitic periodicals lay heaped in piles beside the child-sized desks; pictures of women in gas masks and suspenders were found alongside price lists for leg irons and handcuffs.
Oh, yes, and Miss Martindale, aka Miss Tyrrell, aka Mari de Colwyn, two years before the collapse of the school, was found guilty of assaulting one of the "girls" by caning her on the buttocks, for which she was fined £100 by a local court.
The "ladies" denied any links with the publications found in the house and said that the material was unsolicited and received along with an array of pamphlets and periodicals. They also rejected allegations of sexual immorality and anti-Semitism.
Two years later, Miss Martindale has resurfaced. New name, new persona and a smiling face for the British press. The only time she is a mite frosty is when I ring her up to question her again about her identity.
"Now, I've already spoken to you about that, haven't I," she says severely.
Is she Mari de Colwyn then? "Whenever I have a maid, she receives corporal punishment. I have always beaten my maids and I always will." Assault, then? "It doesn't make any difference what you in Bongo Bongo land call it, Miss Millard. You're so obvious. You make me very sick. Goodbye."