The figure on the stage teasingly removed another garment, casting a smouldering glance at the audience. The front row erupted into bawdy cheers. One member of the audience was so transported by lust that a security guard was called upon to prise a set of grasping fingers away from the performer’s pert derriere. Yes, hen parties these days can get quite rowdy.
The other Saturday I found myself at a performance given by the “DreamBoys” male stripping group. There I sat, amid the dry ice and oestrogen, watching these hunks of tangerine-tanned manhood cavort about in their underpants.
As with most awkward social situations, I went through three stages: grinning rigidly, then drinking, then hooting with laughter. As eroticism, the show was seedy and terrible. As comedy, it was superb. My favourite moment came when the burly security guard was reduced to mopping up a spilt slick of baby oil in between acts, like a charlady. Which was just as well: given the vigorous athleticism of those pelvic thrusts, there was a risk that “All the Way Jay” would aquaplane right across the stage and into the audience. I imagine the ensuing scene would have been a little like a nature documentary, when the nimble gazelle stumbles into a pack of ravening lions.
The evening could also, I suppose, be seen as a triumph of feminism. Stripping used to be a female pursuit, but since the 1970s and the Chippendales, men too can be ogled at and objectified. As I clutched a glass of lukewarm wine and watched “Don Blade” do something indescribable with a bucket of soapy water, it felt like a hollow victory.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or so goes the popular wisdom. Popular wisdom, however, is bunkum when you are an author or a publishing house trying to tempt the reading public into picking up your book. Dust jackets matter so much that I was triple-clicking the attachment in a frenzy when I received the first draft of the American cover of my novel. I loved it, even though it was completely different from the British version, which I also loved, until a reader told me, not unkindly, that the green tree on the cover reminded him of a Pine air freshener.
The British jacket was whimsical, the American one elegantly retro, the German version had my heroine – a devoted campanologist – clinging melodramatically to a bell rope. As an author it’s strange and thrilling to see different designers grappling with your book, interpreting the abstract world of your writing with a few brush strokes or a certain font.
Dust jackets are about more than indulging the egos of writers, though: at their best, they can be works of art, tapping into a literary heritage that is under threat in the age of the e-Book. That 1972 cover of A Clockwork Orange, for instance, which shows Alex with a cog eye in a perfect depiction of dehumanised horror, was concocted overnight in a blind panic after the original artist messed up.
The Kindle is a convenient reading device, but a coverless book loses something of its character.
I was amused to hear Radio 4 listeners complaining on the Feedback programme that Book at Bedtime, that gentle institution which lulls us to sleep like a mug of warm cocoa, features too much darkness, murder, sex and violence. It’s true, though, that context influences what sort of book you want to read or listen to. I failed to get through The Finkler Question on holiday: I wanted to enjoy myself and, as trite a judgment as this may be, it is not per se an enjoyable book. Returning to work, however, as my train rattled past London’s grey office blocks, I found myself sinking comfortably into Howard Jacobson’s morose prose