Tom Sutcliffe: The over-complicated life of Belle de Jour

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The Independent Online

I wonder how many men looked at the photograph of Dr Brooke Magnanti – who outed herself the other day as the real Belle de Jour, blogger horizontale – and thought to themselves, "Yeah ... well I reckon I'd pay £300 for that". I know I did – and it's not because I'd pay £300 for that.

Personally I'm so bashful about intimate contact with strangers that my ears go red when I have my hair washed at the barbers, so I reckon commercial sex might be quite tricky, quite apart from any ethical objections. What I meant was that she didn't look as if she'd been overpriced – particularly when you discover that you could have had a fascinating conversation about neuroscience before getting down to business.

Attractive and smart and self-assured, Dr Magnanti considerably complicates matters for those who speculated that her Belle de Jour blog was actually a dangerous fantasy, either some middle-aged male's sweaty day-dream about a poule du luxe or a heavily cosmeticised version of a much less attractive reality. Had Belle de Jour turned out to have a crack habit, rather than a ruinous addiction to higher education, things would have been so much simpler for those of us (myself included) who feel uneasy about all forms of prostitution.

In one respect she is a fantasy – a living equivalent to Laurie, the law-student/call girl that Josh Lyman ends up sleeping with in the very first episode of The West Wing. It's just that the fantasy appears to be real. Nice girls ... clever girls ... do.

This is partly the point, according to Dr Magnanti. "People lead complicated lives. I'm not the only person walking around who's an ex-call-girl, believe me. And you can't say I'm not real, and that my experience isn't real, because here I am."

Rather curiously, though, her insistence that life is more complicated than our moral prejudices sometimes allow for, goes hand-in-hand with some simplifications of her own. She is breezy about the work involved, insisting that it was "so much more enjoyable" than working as a computer programmer (although the thought occurred that cleaning drains might claim as much). And she presents her choice as a dispassionate calculation about income and qualifications. It all sounds wonderfully, healthily straightforward.

She admits she was very lucky in only encountering one or two clients who made her feel uneasy – the acceptance of her luck doesn't really seem to affect the fact that she presents her experience as perfectly ordinary.

Then you see an odd detail in her story. Her father, with whom she is not currently "in contact", is described by her as "a do-gooder ... he helps women". Explaining how she might open the tricky conversation she has yet to have with him she jokily speculates: "Maybe ... you know all those lovely streetwalkers that you try to help?..."

This is a little startling, is it not? An only daughter who for unspecified reasons isn't talking to her father adopts a profession rather pointedly connected to his work. And you see the photograph that Dr Magnanti has posed for the interview – seated on the edge of a bed in a silk negligee – routine work-wear for a courtesan I suppose, but not a conventional get-up for the medical scientist she is now presenting herself as.

She doesn't make any bones about the fact that she's prepared to trade sex for money (or publicity perhaps) but there still seems to be an odd elision here between Belle and Brooke. And it strikes you that however willing she was to get into the sex trade now she is in a bit of a bind now with regards to how she talks about her past. Admit once, even to a degree, that it had been unpleasant or demeaning or distressing to her sense of her self and the entire structure of confident self-assertion would begin to wobble.

I suspect that it's not just lives that are complicated but that Dr Magnanti is too – and that those complications, if revealed, would give a less insouciant, untroubled account of the decisions she took. I'm curious to know too – if it was so enjoyable and so well paid – why did she stop back in 2004?

Commercial juggernaut at its best

The revelation that Enid Blyton had been subject to a BBC ban was reported in some quarters as evidence of high-handed patrician snobbery. How typical of the BBC to ignore the plaintive requests of its younger listeners in the interests of some corporate notion of what was good for them.

How arrogantly bullying to impose a corporation-wide blacklist so that even proposed interviews with Blyton had the memos flying between corporate acronyms. And it's true that if you look at the full correspondence you get an authentic whiff of the BBC at its most seigneurial and bureacratic.

But I have to confess I felt a certain admiration for the idea that the BBC's producers had successfully maintained a dam against the second-rate for so long. Jean Sutcliffe (no relation incidentally) of the Schools Department notes that she's met Blyton and she was "very nice", acknowledges that the nature study stuff might be usable, but concludes that the BBC can do better as far as stories are concerned.

A few years later she's a bit more robust: "No writer of real merit could possibly go on believing that this mediocre material is of the highest quality and turn it out in such incredible quantities. Her capacity to do so amounts to genius and it is here that she has beaten everyone to a standstill. Anyone else would have died of boredom long ago."

The crux of the matter seems to be a belief that genuine merit shouldn't be nudged aside by a commercial juggernaut, however many books she'd sold. It's an exemplary incident, I would have thought, rather than a shaming one.

Water that's not holy enough

Teresa of Avila believed that Holy Water was unbeatable if you were looking for a devil-repellent and wrote of her happiness that the words of the Church "are so powerful that they impart their power to the water and make it so very different from water which has not been blessed". Exactly how it's different is tricky to establish though.

I was mildly curious after reading that some churches – nervous about swine flu – have started installing the Aquasantiera Elettronica, an Italian invention that dispenses a splash of Holy Water when the hands break a sensor. If the water really was Holy, you might think, you could rely on it not being a viral soup, no matter how many hands had been dipped into it. But the Catholic Encyclopedia – though quite detailed on history and ritual meaning of Holy Water (you should think of it as a kind of top-up baptism, apparently) – was vague about the added ingredients and what you might expect them to do.

There's clearly something magic about it – in that you can't pour it down an ordinary drain but only down a special one reserved for sacramentals – but it's not quite magic enough, it seems, to see off viruses. I'd like to learn more about this mysterious – and possibly now slightly embarrassing - fluid.