There might be one or two details of Lynn Barber's sex life that I don't know about. Oh, hang on, no – I've got the lot. By now every last teenage fumbling and grinding, each of the hours spent on her back while at Oxford University, must now be in the public domain.
Last year I sat in a darkened cinema for two hours learning about her most dramatic love affair, as portrayed by the lovely Carey Mulligan in An Education. I thought I was sated, but she wants to give me more. She wants to give me stats. In her first two terms up at Oxford in the early 1960s, Barber bedded "probably 50 men", she told Desert Island Discs on Sunday. Or, to express that figure in another way, she slept with a new man every other day, those terms being just eight weeks long. "Yes, it was quite good going ... I was jamming them in." A choice expression, and one that I won't be able to wipe from my brain, much as in the way something unspeakable gets stuck to the underside of your shoe and you can't quite remove it.
For although Barber claims she doesn't believe in "the numbers game", she can't help playing it. Nor could Kimberley Walsh, a singer with Girls Aloud, who last week told of sleeping with just two men by the age of 28. Is that all? How wholesome and innocent you are, Kimberley. And we all remember Nick Clegg's "no more than 30" conquests. Not that it does him much good now.
There is a perception gap here. Some of those in the public eye – it never seems to be anyone desperately alluring like George Clooney or Christy Turlington – seem to think that we're burning to know how many different people they've had sex with. They tell us their secret "number" and we're supposed to be either impressed or intrigued or surprised at how restrained they've been, given how very sexy and good-looking they are, and could have had anyone, hundreds more, whenever they wanted. In fact, we readers and listeners at home are left feeling a bit queasy.
This is a pillow talk revelation, one to keep for the new lover (who'll then roll over and wonder how special it is, really, to be number 63). Do the rest of us really need to be lumbered with the thought of Nick or Lynn mechanically humping their way through university?
I suppose there's some sort of old-school feminist defiance of convention in a woman announcing that she's shagged dozens of men. After all, according to popular belief (and here I refer to data remembered from Just Seventeen, circa 1989) women, who should feel guilty about having sex, tend to understate their "number". Men, who naturally have nothing to be ashamed of, reflexively exaggerate it. The Athena-poster model Adam Perry (aka the topless man holding a baby) famously tallied "a lot of sexual partners...it may well be 3,000, although I never kept a list".
Perhaps Perry had some truly passionate encounters during his sexual slog. It hardly matters. He probably doesn't remember. Neither will anyone recall Barber's stated reason for her high tally – that immediate sex with every male student she brushed past in the corridor was a good way to weed out the less physically able of her prospective boyfriends. The point is that saying "I slept with a lot of people. Really A LOT," should suffice these days. Start talking numbers and the headline figure becomes the bit that matters, even though we all know it's probably a lie. It's unreliable, it makes other people feel insecure for no good reason, and it's a stupid way to measure sexual experience. But most of all, it's too much information.
When in Brussels, watch what you say
Brussels, I discovered on a trip there this weekend, is the current holder of the rotating presidency of the European Union. To me, this seems a bit OTT, given that Brussels is already European ne plus ultra, which incidentally is something you wouldn't be able to write there. You'd have to translate ne plus ultra into Dutch, and print it alongside the French. Silly, but that's just the way it is in an officially bilingual city.
If you haven't had the joy of visiting this famously dull but pleasant place, you may not know that every street sign, menu and metro map is labelled in both languages. For instance, the cobbled square where tourists gaze at gilded Gothic and Baroque town houses is called both the Grand Place and the Grote Markt. The cinemas are this week showing Toy Story 3 dubbed into both languages, and our hotel TV listed a roughly equal number of French – and Dutch – language channels.
It appears to be the happy marriage of two cultures. The minute you start speaking to a Belgian, longstanding spousal grudges emerge. For example, heaven forbid that a traveller should ask a French-speaking taxi driver to take her to the Grote Markt. Driver will look blank. Then, he'll say, "Oh, you mean the Grand Place," feigning ignorance of its other, really quite well-known, name. The Dutch-speaking Flemish residents defend their linguistic rights just as stoutly. I read in my guide book about one restaurant where one must order in Dutch or risk being abandoned by the waiter. This isn't the moment to delve into Belgian domestic politics – let's hope that moment never comes – but it seems that the 85 per cent of French-speaking citizens rather resent the equal status awarded to the language of the Flemish minority.
In the spirit of conciliation, not wanting to offend either party, I started speaking English. I delivered it with an Anglican shrug (hands on hips, rather than upturned as in the Gallic), a piece of body language that I like to think said: "Bonjour/Dag, I can see that your mother tongue is under attack from those other bastards, and I do care, but could you see your way to selling me a disappointingly watery coffee? Merci/Dank u."