Intimate words with Naomi: it's enough to turn an Irish bishop's head

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Had an extraordinary encounter the other day. I was presenting a radio show, in which a group of Radio 4 listeners had gathered to talk about the most prized books in their collections, under the eye of an eminent antiquarian dealer. On my left sat a pleasant lady from Leicester called Leonie, who had brought along a first edition of Entertaining Mr Sloane, the first published work by the Sixties playwright Joe Orton. Was there anything special about it? Why yes, she pointed out, it was inscribed on the inside page "To Mum and Dad, From Joe", and was therefore a rare sighting of a presentation copy from the notably informal and anti- conventional gay dramatist.

"But the 'Joe' of the inscription could be any old Joe," I reasoned with razor-like logic. "Are you sure it's Joe Orton's handwriting?" "Yes I am," she said. Why? "Because I'm his sister," she said shortly.

A curious kind of fastidiousness overtakes you at moments like this. Your desire to interrogate any family connection of such a brilliant writer and wayward spirit is mitigated by a reluctance to seem merely nosey about a man who was murdered by his lover in 1967.

So it was only later that I ventured to ask: why was the inscription ("From Joe") so bloodless? Why not "Love, Joe"? Because, she said, they were an unhappy family. Their father, William, was weak and put-upon, "and our mother," said Leonie, "was awful to us".

That much we knew already, in fact, from John Lahr's biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, which describes how Elsie Orton would vent her frustration and dislike on her family. But then Leonie began to laugh, a weird, indulgent cackle as if talking about a naughty child.

"She used to make us porridge in the morning, it came steaming hot out of this saucepan. I remember sitting there in front of the bowl saying 'I don't want it', as children will, and my mother came past and shoved my head into it." At what age? "I must have been about five", she said with the same crazy laugh. "I said to me sister Marilyn the other day, 'D'you think we were abused as children?' She said, 'Don't be so daft, of course we were.' "

What happened to Marilyn? "Once my mother banged her head against the mangle in the kitchen and knocked her out." Picking my way through Leonie's eldritch chuckling, I said, "You mean she grabbed her daughter by the head and...?"

"No, no," said Leonie, "She had this lovely long hair. My mother put it through the mangle." Until she was unconscious? She nodded. Her eyes were wild. She seemed hugely amused, as by some terrible scene of black humour. Forty-five years after the event, it was still as clear to her as last night's television: a faceful of boiling porridge, a sister tortured by her mother - and a whole nervous lifetime of defensive laughter.

According to Mary Kenny, in Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, published next week, one "defining moment of cultural change" in the mid-Sixties was the episode that became known as "the Bishop and the Nightie". It happened on The Late Late Show, Ireland's Friday night two-and-a-half-hour chat show hosted by the foxy, white-haired Gay Byrne, in February 1966.

Part of the programme was devoted to a marital quiz, on the lines of the American Mr and Mrs game show: a husband and wife were questioned separately about their own and their spouse's likes, dislikes, hobbies, views and so on. A Mrs Eileen Fox was asked what colour nightdress she'd worn on her wedding night. She said she couldn't remember - maybe she hadn't worn one at all. Laughter and applause from the audience; but all hell followed from the Catholic Church.

The Bishop of Clonfert condemned the show from the pulpit of Loughrea Cathedral. The papers went bananas. Educational committees and sports authorities denounced The Late Late Show as "dirty". The Irish Catholic magazine called Mrs Fox's sweet little confession "a public discussion of bedroom relations between married couples"...

Ms Kenny tells it most amusingly, and sees it as the start of a media revolution that would "remove all modesty from discussion about physical matters".

To prove her point, she need look no further than last Friday's The Late Late Show (still hosted by the indefatigable Mr Byrne) where Naomi Wolf, the feminist author and dreamboat dilated on her new book Promiscuities. Friends in Dublin report that the city's population spent the weekend discussing little else than Ms Wolf's clitoris which came up, so to speak, a dozen times in discussion.

Emboldened by Gay Byrne's anything-goes insouciance, she asked "Can I mention blow-jobs?" and talked breezily about how good you had to be at fellatio when she was a teenager, while the older gentlemen of the RTE audience sat in silent wonder.

A priest in the audience asked a question about Catholic youth and promiscuity; in return, Mr Byrne asked him if he had anything to contribute to the earlier discussion. "I, er, haven't really had much experiences of clitorises," said the priest sheepishly. What, you can't help wondering, would the Bishop of Clonfert have made of that?

News comes in from New York that thousands of citizens face having their lives disrupted in the most inconvenient way. Chaos stares them in the face. Horror grips the souls of Manhattan's rich apartment-dwellers as they face the unimaginable prospect that the city's doormen may go on strike.

No really, it's true. Discussions are still under way to stop 30,000 "building workers" from downing their Big Macs and copies of Rustler magazine and working to rule. They are striking for more money for themselves, and for a lower starting salary for new workers, which are modest enough demands.

What seems hilarious to a British ear is the level of panic among residents who will suddenly have to do things even rich flat-owners in London take for granted: sorting the mail, delivering it to your own door, calling a taxi, changing a lightbulb, taking out refuse sacks, allowing estate agents in - and most of all, a frightfully complicated manoeuvre called "watching the front door".

This, as British visitors to New York will know, means that, should you dare enter an apartment block and head for the lifts without telling him whom you're calling on, a fat trucker in a uniform will start yelling at you. The only things they ever say are "OK, I wanna see some I D." and (into the telephone) "Mrs Rheinholt? There's a guy down here says he knows ya..."

They are a spectacularly otiose breed, but also spectacularly out of date in a modern city. I mean, how else can you think of their proposed action than as a mass walkout of butlers and footmen?

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