Archive for February, 2012

A lost masterpiece of 20th century satire

February 15, 2012

From the dull constitutional cover you would think that this is yet another dry verbose governmental report, blah blah blah.  Until you look a little closer.  It is presented to Parliament in October 1984.  1984?  Ring any bells?  Then you look at the Members of the Committee, which include Mr Oliver Mellors, Mrs Winston Smith and Miss Frances Hill.  Any more bells ringing?

Within this framework, sociologist Michael Schofield has written an extraordinary satire on British attitudes to sex (on the whole we’re Agin It), and on government hatred of any aspect of human behaviour which is not firmly under control.

In the not too distant future, scientists find a way of recording every orgasm, male or female, in the country.  (The science of this, contained in Appendix A, is frighteningly plausible.)  The way then becomes open to ration sex, through the Sexual Containment Act, and the novel, for such it is, works out both the mechanisms and the human implications of that.

He maintains the framework of the government report with extraordinary virtuosity and accuracy, which comes from a lifetime of sitting on such committees.  In this respect, the novel is a kind of revenge on all those acres of dullness.  But within those official paragraphs, complete with genuine references to scientific journals on human sexuality, are little time bombs of surreal humour that had me laughing out loud on the tube.  Here’s a paragraph to give you the flavour:

“159.  There is also less pornography, but it is difficult to be sure whether this is due to the Sexual Containment Act….. It is our impression that there is not much pornography being sold even in the back rooms of back streets.  The desire to see it is not usually very powerful or compulsive and few people are going to risk the heavy prison sentences now being given for being in possession of an obscene article or for conspiring to commit an obscenity (eg possessing a book catalogue or a theatre ticket.)  As one of our witnesses said: ‘Most people can take it or leave it and if they are forced to do without pornography, they’ll happily do something else, like reading comics, drinking beer, eating sweets, watching sport, gambling, or any of the other simple things people like to do when they’ve got a moment to spare.’”

The lightness of touch makes the Swiftian savagery of the attack on Puritanism all the more effective.  While the case studies (Appendix B) take the operation of the Act to brilliant absurdist heights.  Here in History 5 the ORD (Orgasm Recording Device), which sets off a klaxon when you exceed your monthly orgasm allowance, has gone off, so the poor man has to report to the Emergency Inspector:

“It was too far to walk and I couldn’t afford a taxi…. So there was nothing for it but the tube…  It was terrible, everyone looking and laughing and shouting.  Then waiting for the bloody train.  It was diabolical.  All those remarks, like calling me ‘Dirty Beast’ and ‘Serve you right, you sex maniac’.  Some of them were just kidding, like the chap who said, ‘What you been doing then?  Riding your bike?’  But I wasn’t in the mood for jokes and anyway most of it was very nasty.  One woman just came up and spat at me.”

This, in its own way, is a highly moral as well as funny book.  Having created, indirectly, a portrait of a complete totalitarian society, which the reader fills in from the outlines and incidents described, Schofield finally delivers the Author’s Message in Appendix C, an extract from the evidence submitted to the Committee by SIF (SIF/Syph, geddit?), the Sex Is Fun society:

“We do not worry about who does what to whom and how.  We are not concerned whether you are attracted to the same or the opposite sex or both.  We do not think any part of the human body is shameful or sordid.  We refuse to dictate which portals of entry are permissible.”

If there were any justice, this would be recognised as one of the great satires of the twentieth century, up there with “Scoop” or Tom Sharpe.  Of course it is of its time (written in 1978) but the underlying truths about human nature remain the same.  It is a crying shame that it is out of print and rarer than hen’s teeth.  Hopefully some enterprising publisher will recognise it for the masterpiece of humour that it is.  In the meantime, if you can afford the £20-£30, which second-hand copies go for, treat yourself.

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