The largest "adult lifestyle" exhibition in the world came to west London at the weekend, cramming the Grand Hall, Olympia, with more rubber leotards, dominatrix boots, nipple rings and butt plugs than you'd find in Cynthia Payne's memoirs. Erotica, to give it its respectable title, boasts 200 exhibitors and attracts more than 60,000 visitors of every persuasion, from the furtive self-abuser to the hard-headed retailer for whom a consignment of chain-mail codpieces is of no more significance than a tin of pears.
Semi-naked models, body-painted in dirty mud-and-rust colours, posed like statues on plinths and came alive to seize the hair of passers-by. Couples dressed in matching black leather and suede strode by like Neo and Trinity in the Matrix films.
Watching the wrinkled Scots matron stamping by in her Doris Day blond wig and black-lace maid's outfit; or the huge transsexual - a dead ringer for Ricky Tomlinson but with a headmistress's wig, pinstriped skirt and lace-up boots - studying the catalogue beside the Carling beer tent; or the lady in a sensible car coat having her plump legs squeezed into tight PVC boots at the Ultimate Footwear stand, you could only marvel at how po-facedly we take the inherently farcical aspects of carnality. If you took away the porn videos, you could be at a slightly tackier Ideal Home Exhibition.
"We get feedback from customers, asking for subtle refinements in our designs," said Kevin on the Fetters stand ("Bespoke bondage equipment for the discerning enthusiast"). "Like the chap who asked if we could make the bondage stool more comfortable." Eh? "He said the straps at the back pushed into his spine and wanted them padded. I know people think the whole point of our stuff is pain, but you don't want to be distracted by an ache in your spine from what you're trying to feel elsewhere ..."
At the Wildcat Collection, the imagination was stretched to breaking point, as one regarded a range of gleaming silver and chrome implements apparently destined for operating theatres. Most of them were for inserting up yourself, or squeezing bits of yourself or your close associates. "This is a urethra dilator," said Andy C., "and you can get one which vibrates. This here is a ball flask, with an optional crusher press, both in stainless steel." They also do a phenomenally varied line in dildoes.
Who buys this stuff? "Funnily enough," said Andy, "many of the male buyers look just like Harry Potter. Geeky, spectacles. And the people who buy the really big insertables, they tend to call in [to their Brighton shop] first thing on Monday morning, after spending the weekend getting their courage up". Apparently the Wildcat designers keep making extra-large dildoes, purely for show, only to see them snapped up for private use. "I'm used to it now," said Andy C. "People sometimes ask, 'Haven't you got a bigger one'. And I say, 'There's a pillar box outside, if you wanna give that a go'..."
Near by, Neil and Christine Hamilton, who opened the show, sat on adjacent chairs and gamely submitted to having their heads massaged with spidery metal claws. Mrs Hamilton, in a scarlet jacket and white trousers, earlier fondled the biceps of a group of male strippers called the Fantasy Boys.
Mr Hamilton walked blithely past a stall crammed with canes, cat o'nine tails, bullwhips, handcuffs, and (the super-nastiest) an Irish priest's belt. A brace of young minxes from the Bare Essentials stand, in tiny crepe de chine knickers and little else, rushed over to press leaflets on him. A man walked by wearing a T-shirt that bore the legend, "Haven't I come across your face before?" Mr Hamilton's face bore a look of glassy hilarity. Perhaps he was wondering how English people could behave in such unbuttoned and fatuous ways.Reuse content