What does the British Museum plan to do with all those severed penises?

I suspected the conversation was spinning out of control when Geoff started on about Victorian penises. Until then I'd been rather satisfied with the first meeting of Paradox, our new conversation club. Simon's opening discussion paper on the effect of information technology on our business and social lives had perhaps leaned a little too heavily on the difficulties he'd had trying to get his Powerbook fixed, but the debate afterwards had been vigorous and well-informed.

Paradox is Julie's idea and owes a great deal to her quantum theory of conversation, which maintains that all properly functioning adults have a biological need for social interaction: some may require 30 minutes of conversation a day, others the best part of two hours. But if these demands are not met because of such social developments as the silent IT office, excessive television viewing or the lamentable British predilection for living entirely alone, then there will be pathological side-effects. Julie has evidence, for example, that there has been a 22 per cent increase in the number of people who wander around our streets speaking to no one but themselves.

My interest in Paradox has a slightly different theoretical trajectory. It's not so much the lack of conversation that troubles me as the increasing tendency for all serious talk to regress towards the mundane. On more occasions than I care to remember I've sat and watched complex discussions punctured by nothing more than a pun, a facetious remark, an old joke, or the type of silly fact that should be reserved for a Ripley annual. Which is why Rule 3 of Paradox insists that "Conversation at the club meetings (with the exception of the Christmas party) should persistently strive to transcend the banality of everyday chit-chat".

But on Wednesday night I could see night that the horse had already bolted. On the back of a conversation about the increasing tendency of museums to transform themselves into theme parks, Geoff had squeezed in the news that the British Museum had a large cabinet entirely filled with the penises that were knocked off prominent public statues by Victorian prudes. A curator friend had not only confessed to the existence of this locker but had told Geoff in confidence that a campaign might shortly be mounted with the aim of restoring all of these severed cocks to their original sites. This would involve issuing a catalogue carrying photographs of the castrated artefacts and an invitation to the public to suggest possible matches. There was even a proposed logo for the project: a portrait of a single unattached member and the legend: "Is this one big enough for Hercules?"

From then on it was all downhill. Simon got a few cheap laughs talking about the problem of organ rejection by statues which felt they'd been inappropriately downsized, and Louise piled in with a singularly revolting story about an acid-bath murderer called Haigh who made a habit of visiting local pubs and showing complete strangers sets of nipples he'd removed from his victims before popping them into the hydrochloric.

It was only the first meeting of the Paradox Club and one must expect a short learning period in which members wean themselves off more traditional conversational habits. But I'd have felt far more optimistic about the future if the evening hadn't ended with Geoff managing to persuade everyone in the room to join him in a spirited rendition of what he described as the best-loved musical celebration of dismemberment: "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". Ah, well. Early days.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special