A debt we still owe to Madam Cyn
25 September 2008
Without wishing to be disloyal towards a person for whom I once worked as a ghostwriter, I am surprised by the regularity with which Cynthia Payne returns to the headlines. This week, the walk-on part that she plays in Julie Walters’ autobiography That’s Another Story has was a feature of the book’s nespaper serialisation.
Those who remember Madam Cyn from her glory years some 30 years ago are unlikely learn anything new from the book. For a while, she ran rather genteel sex-parties at her house in Streatham, where suburban gents of a certain age paid to engage in mild acts of sado-masochism. A bank manager was covered with Hoover dust, a JP was dressed up as a baby, a policeman was shouted at as he scrubbed the kitchen floor, and so on.
There was a court case about all this and very quickly Cynthia Payne was swept into a media career that would be the envy of any chef or retired footballer. Her biography was written by the eminent novelist Paul Bailey. David Leland turned her adult life into a screenplay called Personal Services, which was directed by Terry Jones, and later adapted her younger days to the screen with Wish You Were Here.
Whenever there was any kind of sex story in the news, it was to Madam Cyn that journalists turned for a saucy sound-bite. At some point during the 1980s, a publisher decided that there was a funny book to be written under her name by someone else; it hardly sold a copy, I am relieved to say.
The mystery is that the woman who became something of a B-list national treasure, was not beautiful and had no discernible sense of humour. The one career-making joke in her life was her discovery that respectable men like doing unrespectable things during the lunch breaks. I’d been told that Cynthia had a startling capacity for identifying a person’s hidden erotic nature and had looked forward to having mine discovered but while I worked with her, there were no intimate revelations about me, or indeed her. Her interest in her chosen subject was professional to a nerdish degree. Like many of those providing personal services, her own personality was almost entirely absent.
That perhaps was why she became popular. She looked like a motherly Joan Sims character from a Carry On film. She was good at impersonating humour. She specialised in providing the sort of sex with which middle England is most comfortable: furtive, slightly silly, unerotic. Nothing from the world of Madam Cyn risked arousing those who read about it, or saw in reproduced on-screen. What, after all, could be less erotic than a middle-aged bank manager being covered with Hoover dust?
In America, a rather different hero of sexual liberation is about to be honoured. Barney Rosset, publisher and film distributor, is the subject of a new documentary, Obscene, and will next month receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation. Rosset, who is now 86, took over the defunct Grove Press in 1951 and went on to publish Henry Miller, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, William Burroughs, and Jean Genet, fighting and winning many a legal battle. His books were “a breach in the dam of American Puritanism,” he said.
It is odd to think that Britain has no comparable champion of liberation, and that, if we did, would not take him or her seriously. It seems we still prefer the melancholy, suburban world of Madam Cyn.
Birds of prey may find lamb off the menu in Scotland
Like the grey wolf in America, birds of prey in Britain are polarising opinion about the wisdom of re-introducing species which have a complex, occasionally destructive, relationship with man. The more successful the conservation story, the more likely it is that it will eventually go wrong.
Crofters in the north-west Highlands of Scotland are claiming that sea eagles which were re-introduced to the area by the RSPB in the 1970s and 1980s after an absence of two centuries have this year killed over 200 lambs. Many of the animals taken, it is said, have been dropped by eagles unable to carry them back to their nests. If this is true, the loss of livestock – one small farm reportedly lost half of its lambs – must be adding to the very considerable difficulties of those trying to earn a living from the land.
The sight of a rare raptor is one of the great thrills of bird-watching, but it is wrong that the entertainment of well-heeled twitchers should be at the expense of hard-pressed crofters. If the extremely wealthy RSPB wishes to re-introduce a species, then it should be open to the idea of paying those whose livestock helps to keep it alive.
Political parties where sex and drugs are rife
It is that difficult time of the year when male politicians are photographed kissing and holding hands with their wives before announcing, to tumultuous applause, that they are fervently in favour of niceness, being fair to everyone, justice for the poorer nations of the world, improved efficiency and, above all, a future for our kiddies.
Who, while witnessing these depressing scenes at each of the party conferences, would not prefer to be on the other side of world, where politicians are still proud to be red-blooded? In Australia, even the goody-goody Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has decided to confess that he once attended a topless bar in New York.
More recently the Police Minister of New South Wales, Matt Brown, was alleged to have stripped down to a G-string during a party and straddled a Labor MP, Noreen Hay.
Calling out to Ms Hay’s adult daughter, the Police Minister was reported to have informed her in graphic language that he was performing a sex act on her mother.
Another minister from the same government is serving a jail sentence for offences involving young boys and marijuana. It was not long ago that the former leader of the opposition described the Malaysian-born wife of his rival Bob Carr as “a mail-order bride”.
Meanwhile, over in West Australia, the state Liberal Leader Troy Buswell resigned last month. It was true, he admitted, that he had twanged the bra strap of an MP and, yes, he had indeed sniffed the chair where a female colleague had just been sitting.
At least there is one part of the world where politics still retains some interest.