Columnist of the Week: Fancy a quick Bungay? Look no further than East Anglia

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The Independent Online

It has taken time, but the great sexual revolution of which we hear so much these days has reached the heart of Suffolk.

It has taken time, but the great sexual revolution of which we hear so much these days has reached the heart of Suffolk.

Bungay, once known as a sweet and innocent market town with a nice church and excellent shopping facilities, has recently become associated in the minds of thousands with a certain type of hardcore pornography. The problem was that the domain title for a website promoting the town expired earlier in the year and has subsequently been sold to some dirty-minded Americans working in the sex industry.

As a result, those hoping to find out about the history of the church or the most popular local Broadland walks have encountered, as the local paper put it, "an altogether different type of 'broads'."

To the alarm and confusion of tourists and locals, the Bungay website reveals "scantily clad women in compromising positions". There has been a tremendous row about this.

The viewing of porn on the internet by East Anglians is well below the national average. But there are worries that the Bungay website could change all that.

It is well known this kind of thing is as addictive and debilitating as crack cocaine. Who knows how many hikers and tourists, after an accidental hit of Bungay, could start searching the Web for other "market towns" in Suffolk?

Soon, the mud will be drying on their walking boots as they become hooked on rambling and sightseeing through the murkier reaches of cyberspace.

But why Bungay? Why should arcane erotic practices be associated with that particular town? Clearly, the problem is one of lexicography. An expert in contemporary usage – the great Jonathan Green, perhaps – could explain what exactly is involved in an act of consensual bungay but, tragically, it may be too late.

Soon, this charming town will have become a touristic curiosity, the sort of place, like Condom in France, which people will visit purely for the sake of sending amusing postcards from Bungay to their more broad-minded friends.

So the foreign visitors, much derided in the press this month for asking if Dorking was something that the English do, were on the right track – the names of many of our towns do indeed derive from activities that were popular there.

To dork was to partake in an Anglo-Saxon sport involving two billy-goats and a bucket.

It was the old English verb "to isel", meaning to prate foolishly and pretentiously at a dinner gathering, that gave its name to Islington. An adjective denoting all that is indecisive, shifty and pointless was the inspiration, rather appropriately, for Wembley.

Residents of Dorking, Islington and Wembley may dislike these associations but at least they are unlikely to be visited by plump, pig-eyed sex tourists from Kansas looking for a quick bungay.

Avoid interesting tag at all costs, Mr Kennedy

Charles Kennedy may have announced, in an end-of-year message to the Liberal Democrat faithful, that the shape of British politics is about to change but a recent poll suggests he has a problem on his hands.

According to an online survey by an organisation called cyberBritain.com, many people mysteriously believe that Mr Kennedy is now our most interesting politician.

Unfortunately, being interesting is second only to having a sense of humour as a liability for political figures. We associate wit and brains with flightiness, dullness with reliability. Any sensible, ambitious politician will cultivate an air of dreary humourlessness.

Mr Kennedy's friends might point out that their man is not in fact very funny, but merely impersonates humour.

They might add that any poll placing Neil Hamilton as Britain's fourth most interesting politician (after Tony Benn and Ann Widdecombe) is not to be taken seriously. But the fact is, that charge of being original and amusing just might stick. Mr Kennedy must dull down quickly or risk becoming yet another interesting political has-been.

Yet another overrated idea

The American magazine Arts and Ideas hit on the brilliant notion in 1997 of asking a group of high-profile academics to nominate the year's most overrated and underrated ideas. The result was somewhat predictable, with kindness, hope and pacifism appearing in the underrated column while Post-Modernism, repression and, more surprisingly, eternal life were deemed overrated.

This year, the magazine has given the dons a tougher task, requiring them to complete the same exercise but with ideas that were particularly popular in 2002. Facial transplants, marriage, the axis of evil and the slippery slope of bioethics ("life is inherently slopey," said Professor Steven Pinker), were thought to be overrated while affluent attitudes, amoral pragmatism, Christianity and the generation gap were, according to the academics, taken too much for granted.

It is difficult to imagine the British completing this exercise – we tend not to pay too much attention to academics, and concepts such as amoral pragmatism interest us rather less than the week's trends, fashions and celebrities.

In fact, it would be arts and ideas themselves that would appear at the top of many overrated lists in these islands.

Yet here perhaps is a topic of conversation for those who plan to spend New Year's Eve at home with like-minded friends rather than at a party in search of a fun-loving stranger. Filling up the overrated list turns out to be rather easy. Clearly, in 2002, domestic virtue – in the form of cooking, tastefully making over the lounge-diner, buying the right kind of antiques, introducing a water feature into the garden – has been massively and tediously overrated.

Other contenders would be making money, perceiving houses as potential profit centres, fame as a source of happiness and virtually anything to do with Harry Potter.

The underrated list is more difficult. A glance at the politicians who dominate our lives, and indeed a few seconds in front of the television, would suggest wit is in decline but then, by an odd paradox, so is dullness, which often conceals an unfashionable sort of dogged intellectual persistence.

A vast regiment of clammily prurient, yet self-righteous, journalists has spent much of the year revealing the infidelities of the famous and then scolding them for their behaviour. Obviously, the opinions of newspapers are overrated but then perhaps infidelity, and sexual skittishness generally, should be included in the underrated list. Many lives that would otherwise be dreary and predictable receive a sharp jolt of romance, danger and excitement by sensitive, strategic misbehaviour.

It goes without saying that, in political circles, truth and respect for the electorate are increasingly undervalued but then no one will be surprised by that. Life, as Professor Pinker pointed out, is inherently slopey.

*OF THE many humiliations that are an intrinsic part of life as an author, the unattended signing session has always ranked high. It is a rite of passage, an occasion when, having been invited to appear at a bookshop to read from his book and sign copies, the author finds himself alone save for a handful of bored and mildly embarrassed sales assistants.

As I discovered recently, the grander, sharper school of modern shops has a way to avoid these problems. At the slightest hint of a low turn-out, it pulls the plug, sometimes at the last minute. Publishers never object, being cringingly respectful of big bookshops. As for the author, he can be relied upon to blame himself and, rather than ask questions ("Was the event promoted? What will people who turn up for it be told?") will hide beneath a duvet in a funk of anxiety, self-loathing and fear for the future.

There is another way. When the Borders branch in Oxford informed the philosopher Andrew Malcolm a planned reading from his book The Remedy was to be cancelled, he turned up anyway and, finding there was an audience, started reading.

The result was something of a ruckus. One member of staff tried to stop him, others took away a table and chairs.

Eventually the police were called in and eight officers escorted the author and his readers out of the store. One of those who was moved along said it was "one of the most outrageous and disturbing scenes I have ever witnessed in this country and a monstrous violation of free speech".

Most authors would avoid causing a fuss for fear of gaining a reputation of a "difficult author" but Malcolm seems to have had the last laugh. Not only has he appeared in the press as a heroic champion of freedom, but Borders has announced the reading will take place at its London store at the end of January.

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