In defence of onanism

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 23 November 2003

A judge in Angoulême is alleged to have taken French joie de vivre to new levels. So excited was he by a female lawyer’s advocacy, that he reached inside his judicial gown, unzipped his trousers, and was alleged to perform “unmistakable movements.” Unfortunately for him, he was seen not just by the object of his affections but also by a journalist and a woman in the public gallery. He was promptly carted off and is now suspended, pending the outcome of psychiatric tests.

Poor judge. There are surely those among us in the legal profession who have occasionally engaged in deep sexual fantasy in court. After all, sometimes it’s so dull that there is nothing better to do. Or, perhaps, the Law Society’s finest have contemplated quietly retiring in those moments of stress in the workplace, to a world where their solipsism is complete (as Nabokov put it). There but for the grace of God go the errant French judge’s legal brethren.

Or do they? Perhaps my vague stirrings of sympathy for the French judge are the consequence of two years as a lawyer responsible for celebrated top-shelf magazines such as Asian Babes, Shaven Haven and, a little less creatively, Big Ones. It was a phase I went through and now it’s over, but back then I was surrounded by images whose raison d’etre was the promotion of onanism. I alone in legal London was entitled to have a stack of porn on my desk.

How my friends in their staid city jobs envied me. Not only did I have to peruse top-shelf literature for a living, I also had to watch my company’s other venture into soft porn, The Fantasy Channel. The executives employing me never liked the description of their products as pornography, preferring the term ‘adult lifestyle.’ I once argued the toss with them, brandishing my ‘A’ level in Ancient Greek and pointing out that if pornography literally meant ‘writing about women of easy virtue,’ there was little argument when one considered the content of Asian Babes or The Fantasy Channel. Like so much advocacy, this argument fell on stony ground.

Initially, the lifestyle espoused in this strange world had its effect. I found it difficult to concentrate on things like commercial contracts and county court claims, assailed by a plague of arousal. But soon, the sweet-shop overkill wore off. Where was the fun in a picture of a beautiful naked woman? I had overdosed, and, it seemed, adult lifestyle wasn’t for me.

But then one day a student applied for some work experience. I was a little worried that she was unaware of the adult lifestyle nature of our business. There will be plenty of images that some people find offensive, I said, do you mind? No, I do not, she said, and so one fine and balmy June day she arrived for work. She had bags of enthusiasm and, I couldn’t help but notice, was rather pretty. I set her to work on a contract but she soon dealt with this. Can’t I legal some of the tapes, she offered, and fed up with them as I was, I was only too happy to accommodate her.

This was a mistake. It was a long, hot summer and my concentration problems returned with renewed vigour. “Is this legally OK?” my student would say, wondering into my office with the proof of next month’s centrefold. Or she would ring from the studio, where she had just watched the latest Fantasy Channel offering, worried that there were one or two scenes that were so problematic that I really ought to come and watch them with her. Slowly but surely, as we together ensured that nothing untoward would go out under the company’s name, I began to think that adult lifestyle wasn’t so bad.

At the end of the day, I managed not to embrace the French judge’s controversial decision. I moved on, she moved on, we all moved on. And now, in Angoulême, it looks like there’ll soon be a new judge in town. As I used to say to myself, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.