Books: A Point of View: High-Priced Porn |
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High-Priced Porn : on the Home Secretary's expense claims

(S05E02, broadcast 3rd and 5th April 2009)

"What porn is really for"

Very few voices have dared to speak up in defence of the Home Secretary’s husband, but let mine be one of them. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, is in an invidious position. Before I start defending her husband, Richard Timney, let me be blunt about just how invidious that position is. It always looked unduly cosy that the Home Secretary should claim forty thousand pounds a year of public funds to pay Richard Timney to run her constituency office.

Though it is common practice for parliamentarians to employ their spouses, the Home Secretary’s employment of her husband was bound to draw scrutiny to her broad interpretation of what constitutes a legitimate expense. A bedroom counted as a primary home. It looked even more unduly cosy when her husband started claiming his expenses, including the purchase of a bath plug and a home entertainment system. Some might have thought, the modern world being what it is, that although the bath plug might be morally neutral if used responsibly, the same might not apply to the home entertainment system: and so, indeed, it proved.

While the Home Secretary was away on official business, on the evening of 1 April 2008 at 11.18 her husband watched an adult entertainment movie and on the evening of 6 April at 11.19 he watched another adult entertainment movie. Since these movies were available only on subscription, he had to pay for them. He charged the payment to the public. The fact that the Home Secretary’s husband watched pay-for-view pornography in her absence, and the further fact that he then charged the payment to the taxpayer: these facts were made public by a tabloid newspaper which can be said to have some expertise in the matter, since the fortunes of its proprietor were largely made in this very business of adult entertainment.

It is doubtful if the Home Secretary was entertained at all when she found out that this story was going to be made public at the very time in her career when she has legislation going through parliament to regulate such adult-entertainment matters as businessmen putting visits to pole-dancing clubs on expenses as if they’d just been to the pub. Tough on pole-dancing, tough on the causes of pole-dancing: it’s a New Labour policy in the grand modern tradition, which takes a moral view that includes the economics, or, if you like, an economic view that includes the morality. Either way, when you hold the position of Home Secretary and have been so outspoken on the topic of adult entertainment on expenses, it isn’t the best moment for headlines to be telling the world that your husband has not only been watching porno movies, he has been off-loading the cost of doing so on to the tax-paying public.

Her husband has dropped her in it. Some would say that she was already in it, because she has patently never been able to judge the effect of an expenses claim in which a principal item is a salary for her husband’s efforts in running her constituency office, a salary with an expense allowance down to and including bath plugs. But he has dropped her further in it, as if that were possible. If she was already in it up to her lower eyelids, he has now stood on top of her head. From where her fringe was previously visible, bubbles are coming up, and it’s all his fault. Is there no one to speak for him?

Let me be the one, because it just so happens that I know the truth about pornographic movies. As a professional critic of the media I have always felt it was incumbent on me, as a public duty, to keep up with developments in all the means of expression however disreputable, so for purposes of research I began checking out the adult-entertainment channels in hotel rooms all over the world. If I was filming in Hawaii or Tokyo or Berlin I would switch on the adult-entertainment channels late at night to see what was on offer and make notes.

One of the first things I noted was that although there were hundreds and even thousands of pornographic movies they all had the same few half-witted story structures and almost without exception they were manufactured in Los Angeles, with a cast of characters that soon became recognizable no matter where in the world you were watching. Indeed that was the chief comfort they offered. If you were lonely in a hotel room in Sydney or Amsterdam, there on the screen were the same old familiar few faces from the San Fernando Valley, the men with their improbably low foreheads and permanently puzzled expressions, the women with their enhanced lips and strangely rigid chests, as if wearing a tungsten basque internally.

For a student of bad acting, there could be no richer field. It’s not as if the porno stars merely lack dramatic talent. They have the opposite of dramatic talent. Yet touchingly they are more interested in the challenges offered by the roles they play than in the sex part. The man pretending to be the scientist whose job is to check the sexual sensitivity of the female astronaut just back from space keeps adjusting the collar of the white coat which proves that he is a scientist. He holds his clipboard in a scientific manner. Meanwhile the woman playing the astronaut delivers her line of dialogue. ‘I don’t know, Doctor. I guess something happened to me out there.’

None of them can act because none of them really has a personality: a fact which is only further emphasized when they attempt to effervesce. As a result, they are no more erotic when they disrobe than plaster casts of roughly the same size and weight. I hasten to add that not all of the women are low rent in their physical attributes. All the men look stupid beyond belief, but some of the women would be almost personable in the right light, which this definitely isn’t. The lighting is harsh for the same reason that there is so little pubic hair in evidence. The aim is to make the whole thing look clinical.

From the erotic angle, adult entertainment movies are made for men whose idea of the adult barely gets beyond the babyish. For anyone with a brain, there is not only no question of being aroused, there is a detectable shrivelling effect on the libido. In time, a connoisseur of the form learns to trust it as a sure-fire means of getting the mind off sex.

Is your partner away in Brussels making a speech? Get your mind off sex by watching a porn video. Just don’t watch too many of them, or you might burn out your circuits permanently. Plenty of men have done this. They watched Barely Legal Teenage Terminators once too often, and now nothing stirs even when they eat blue pills like peanuts.

Yes, men, you can watch the stuff in perfect safety any time you want to quell that urge. But it might, on the whole, be safer not to expect the public to nod with understanding if you charge the expense to them. I’m quite confident that Jacqui Smith’s husband was doing her a service, as it were, when he switched on the purportedly hot movies. He was doing it to cool himself down while he counted the hours until her return. But then he made the mistake of claiming the cost as a legitimate expense. You could say that it was, in a way. If his job of running her office is legitimate, then keeping himself sane in the absence of his partner is plainly part of his duty, and the attendant costs shouldn’t have to come out of his pocket, especially in view of the fact that her position as Home Secretary must infinitely multiply her effect as an object of desire. I can remember very well when I felt that way about Sir Geoffrey Howe.

But Richard Timney should have realized that the mass of the British public is still convinced that there is such a thing as sauciness. They are not yet living in the modern age. They are still living in a Carry On movie. Only a comparatively small proportion of the public have as many channels as Mr Timney had in his home entertainment centre and have seen what a cable channel programme like Sexcetera is actually like. The presenters of Sexcetera, when they aren’t hearty young American females with breasts bigger than their behinds, are hearty young American males with grins bigger than their heads, screaming in a stage whisper about the secrets behind the silver-studded black-leather-quilted door. There are never any secrets worth bothering about behind the silver-studded black-leather-quilted door. There are people of repellent aspect doing ridiculous things to each other with clinical-looking equipment, but there are never any secrets.

Because there is only one secret about sex, and that is that it’s a feeling, and you can’t see feeling. Some of the greatest artists who ever lived did their best to register the look on a woman’s face when she is in ecstasy. Bernini almost did it, Gustav Klimt almost did it, and if you’re a man dying for lack of love you could start with them. But looking at porno movies will get you so far in the opposite direction that you might as well watch a programme about stock-car racing.

The real story in this matter, however, isn’t about a man watching images. It’s about a man leaving a paper trail. In that respect, it was he who hadn’t caught up with the modern age. In a hotel, they promise you that the name of the porno movie you watched won’t show up on your bill. But if somebody else is paying your bill, they can easily figure out that you watched it. If you had resigned yourself at the time to paying for those two stupid movies with your own money, Richard, Jacqui wouldn’t be paying now.


I was only just exaggerating about the tedium of pornographic videos. If the weeping pink caverns and the torrential money shots are what you’re after, you (I take it that ‘you’ are a bloke) doubtless already know that the Web is the place to cruise. On the Web, just checking out the free samples and without handing over a single credit-card detail, you can click from one mind-rotting spectacle to another until one day you wake up and realize you have turned into a puddle of grease. Off the Web, in the videos available for rent or purchase, what you mainly get is the acting in between the bits you’re after, and the acting is invariably in full keeping with the intelligence and talents of the participants. The porn videos attract much solemn sociological comment but none of it should be trusted, because the subject is too funny for anyone except the occasional gifted writer like Martin Amis to do it justice. The discrepancy between intention and effect, between self-importance and actual importance, is so great that only a comic imagination can see the tragedy.

Any writer planning a novel about porn who does research on the Web had better have plans prepared for getting his hard-drive crushed at a moment’s notice, in case the police break in. On the prevailing scale of public condemnation, ‘research’ into adult porn rates comfortably lower than ‘research’ into paedophilia, but it would still make a good story in the press. For now at least: I suppose the day will come when there will be a market even among six-year-olds for pictures of five-year-olds being violated. In no other area of everyday life do the Latin tags tempus fugit and o tempora, o mores apply with quite such force. For those of us who once thought that Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones were hot stuff, the computer now on our desk might as well be a window on the underworld. Don’t even think of poking your finger in there.

On the subject of time passing, I should note that Jacqui Smith lost her seat at the next election and duly took the path to oblivion, which can happen to famous politicians as it happens to their ideas. My gag about New Labour being tough on pole-dancing depended upon the slogan ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, a catch-phrase now forgotten like most of Tony Blair’s other promises. Generally one likes to future-proof one’s prose but not at the cost of leaving out the commonly quoted current verbal trivia. And anyway, some of it stays current: o tempora, o mores, for example. Nice one, Cicero. One in the eye for Catiline.