Letting the world witness where the sun don't shine
The confirmation that I really and truly know nothing whatever about either this current world or the people who inhabit it came last Tuesday night. I say "confirmation", because the symptoms of ignorance had been present for some time, but I did not intellectually assemble them as part of an overall pathology; until, that is, Dr Pixie McKenna, a medical graduate of University College Cork, unintentionally connected the dots for me.
She is a co-presenter of the Channel Four programme, 'Embarrassing Bodies', which goes out every night this week (11.55 tonight), and which invites people with physical characteristics that are socially uncomfortable to discuss them on air.
On Tuesday, the programme's mobile clinic arrived in Leeds. The first patient was an African woman, who described her extreme unhappiness at a recent development to her body, which had since made her reluctant to have sex with men, and which was far too embarrassing ever to show to a doctor. She had grown a small flap of skin along her anus.
And naturally, being far too embarrassed to show this growth to her doctor, she then showed it to four million viewers, including me. Yes, she took off her knickers, lay face down on the couch, and spread her buttocks. The camera then lingeringly showed us both the southern end of her alimentary canal, and the offending flap, at which point, I fell off my chair: event timed at 2305 hours. Not merely was this a televisual first for me -- it redefined my understanding of the word "embarrassing".
Stunned, I was still wandering around, like Moses in a Sinai sandstorm, when Pixie gave the African lady advice on how to treat the flap, so I'm not clear what it was. The next patient was Alyson, an attractive blonde woman in her 30s. Her bodily condition was so mortifying, so excruciatingly embarrassing, that it had totally destroyed her sex life, and she could not possibly show it to her GP. The soft-tissue between her labia, she confided, was hanging in a loose fold.
Well, I thought, this was quite clearly far too rich for television, even on Channel Four after the watershed (so to speak): except it wasn't, because she promptly took off her knickers, lay back on the examining-couch, proudly spread open her legs, and exposed the glories of her gynaecological glenside.
"Stand up," Pixie then chirruped heartily, like a girl-guide leader asking one of her girls to show the troop a particularly fine sheepshank, "and let's see what you look like from the front".
Alyson rose, still stark naked, with her legs apart: and yes, we could see a small protuberant fold of flesh from between her labia. Looked fine to me: but what do I know?
Well, we know the answer to that, don't we? The answer was confirmed by the next patient, who was having trouble with his penis. Fifty-four and about to get married, he was far too embarrassed to let his betrothed see it, or to get treatment for whatever ailed it. Look, he said, whipping it out and showing it to the next presenter, a Norse-looking cove with flaxen locks and cheekbones you could hang a studding-sail from. The organ was visibly leprous -- but stay: there was more!
The soon-to-be groom yanked back the foreskin, apparently revealing a dead toad, squashed and misshapen by road-kill. A million viewers (I, included) briefly whinnied in horror before swooning: yet this was a vision which had been so brutally denied to -- the creature! -- the love of his life.
Enough! Confirmation that I am in a new world, in which the word "embarrassing" no longer implies that you suffer from a physical affliction which you are reluctant to show anyone at all: but here, "embarrassing" actually means you'll certainly expose your affliction -- but only if you have an audience of at least several hundred thousand. Anything smaller, perfectly mortifying: but once over that threshold: "You'd like a closer look? Excellent! Allow me to open my legs even wider still."
So in this value system, reluctant now means eager, private means public, intimate means open, and confidential means proclamatory -- but only provided enough people are watching. So -- is a vegan someone who will only eat seal cubs if watched by a large audience? Is a priest someone who observes the vow of celibacy when alone, but if observed by a large crowd, goes at it like a herd of lesbian goats in Sodom? Does the Poor Clare who, when alone, dines on mouse droppings, in public swagger around the place like Michael Winner on acid?
Presumably it works both ways in this amazing new world of mine. The brash, union-bashing public Michael O'Leary, when alone in his humble bedsit, knits mittens for SIPTU strikers on picket duty at dawn.
The very publicly womanising Colin Farrell, in private, longs for his wedding day, so he can finally lose his virginity. And Hillary Clinton, who on the campaign trail resembles the uninvited guest in John Hurt's ribcage in 'Alien', when alone, is actually a sweet, attractive, amiable little lady.
No, no. Just about anything is possible in this strange new world of mine: but thank God, never that.