Having a drink with two male friends the other day, I experienced one of those mini epiphanies that made me see, not for the first time, what really makes intelligent men tick. One was a respected journalist with a new baby and a passion for opera, the other a literary critic who has recorded several programmes for BBC4. They were idly flicking through a tabloid newspaper that had been left on the bar. Our conversation had touched on the Hutton inquiry, the Booker Prize long-list and the appalling cost of school fees, when one of them casually turned another page. "My God!" he shouted. "Look at the size of Geri Halliwell's breasts." At that moment, I knew I had lost them.
To be fair to them, the shock value of Geri's body was partly to blame. Real bosoms have been keeping a relatively low profile this summer. The right body for the beach is honed and honey limbed, and nobody wants a sweaty cleavage in a heat wave. What you want is a pair of long, California-brown legs, a micro-mini and a tight little Kylie bottom.
Come the autumn, though, and there's a whiff of something more traditional mixed in with the scent of the first falling leaves and the odd bonfire. Could it be that we're after something just a little bit warmer and more snuggly (and, notably, real) now the nights are drawing in? The evidence is there. Tabloids that have been a Nigella-free zone since spring have suddenly rediscovered their passion for her beauty and are fawning rather sickeningly over her, like guilty husbands falling back in love with their wives after an ill-advised fling. Rumblings about a new Carry On film being recorded in London have had breast aficionados eagerly flicking through their film mags again, while Geri only needs to put on a little weight to have newspapers analysing her ever-changing cup size over a centre spread.
Sales of thesauruses must have soared, thanks to the teams of hacks whose job it seems to be to dream up even more drool-flecked words for "voluptuous", "curvaceous" and "buxom". It's as if boobs that had been carefully packed away for the summer have been leaping out all over the place, shouting: "You remember us, don't you, boys? Now what's all this we've been hearing about bottoms?"
But the best evidence that good old British, smutty-seaside-postcard, silicone-free knockers are staging a comeback is the film Calendar Girls, in which a posse of slightly wobbly beauties bares all for charity. It's Celia Imrie who does it. In the film's trailer she is posing nervously behind an old-fashioned cake stand, nipples barely covered by two cherry-topped pastries, while the ladies of the WI cover her modesty with their dressing gowns. Helen Mirren turns sternly to the photographer. "Lawrence?" she says, solemnly. "We're going to need considerably bigger buns." Imrie has since told an interviewer: "It was in the script ... But that actually was the case." "I don't have a tiny bottom like Kylie's and I don't have Hollywood legs," she seems to be saying. "But I do have enormous breasts. Aren't they fabulous?"
It's not only a British obsession, though. Steve Martin summed it up best in LA Story, the 1991 film in which he plays a weatherman who rejects Sarah Jessica Parker's lithe, roller-skating bimbo for a gorgeous English lady. "I could never be a woman," he says, sadly. "I'd just stay at home and play with my breasts all day."
Women smile indulgently at confessions like this. They nod knowingly to their friends and say, "he was never breast-fed, you know", as if in explanation. And, while countless women despair about men never looking them in the eye when they talk to them, there are also stories about girls who start taking the pill and don't go out for weeks because they are too busy checking out their new breasts in the mirror.
Maybe now that Geri Halliwell has her D-cup back she will take to staying in a bit more and marvelling at her own silhouette. We'd all be very grateful if she did. Perhaps then our male friends would be able to have a conversation again without being hopelessly distracted by pictures of her enormous bosom.
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