The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl
Belle de Jour Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 294pp, £12.
Sorry to be pompous so early in the new year, but this book illustrates pretty much everything that is wrong with modern publishing. The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl began life as a blog (which, for the uninitiated, is a web diary) that was read by 15,000 people every day. This particular blog being about sex, there was soon a big fuss about it in the newspapers. And this fuss being mostly about how amazingly popular the blog was, there was soon a hefty publishing deal. "Despite wild accusations, [the author's] identity remains a secret, and her career as a call girl continues," pants the press release for the book. "It has already been sold in 15 countries." In other words, perhaps the papers could please help jog a few memories (and sell a few books) by cranking up their efforts to find Belle de Jour all over again.
Why, I wonder, has no one stopped to consider that what catches fire on the internet will not necessarily combust between two hard covers and a pretty dust jacket? The whole point about the internet is that 90 per cent of the stuff on it is disposable. You read it, then you forget all about it. While a person might be happy - thrilled, even - to read a 600-word diary entry every morning before they settle to work, it does not follow that he or she will want to read exactly the same stuff over 294 pages. It's a simple matter of pace.
This is not to say that, in years to come, the internet won't throw up a new James Boswell or Samuel Pepys. Most of the time, however, online "discoveries" must be nurtured - and edited - just like any other new writer. Merely reprinting their existing efforts verbatim, as appears to have happened in the case of Belle, will not wash. Belle is sparky; she has a voice. Yet her ramblings, for all their occasional sauciness, read like little more than the idle jottings of a girl whose mornings are free. Quotidian is the word that comes to mind. Not only is her narrative repetitious, it lacks any kind of climax, which is rather ironic in the circumstances. Add to this unenticing brew one's inevitable suspicions about the enterprise, and what you are left with is a rather apt feeling of grubbiness; I'm afraid you read this book for one reason, and one reason alone.
Belle de Jour, in so far as we know anything about her at all, is from the north, Jewish, and a well-read graduate. She is also keen on sex. Having moved to London after her degree, she failed to land a job and, much more easily than you might imagine, slipped into working for an escort agency. She likes the work. She likes the freedom it gives her, and the opportunity to dress up, elaborate underwear being very much her thing. She even likes her clients. Occasionally she posts her CV to some more suitable employer, but these efforts are distinctly half-hearted. Belle is nothing if not pragmatic. "My mind made the calculations," she writes of the first time she is paid for sex. "Rent due, number of days in a month, net profit from the night out. I thought I should feel a pang of regret or surprise at being used. But it was nothing like that."
So what do we learn about life on the game? Thrush and cystitis are a problem, obviously, and the top-class call girl is compelled to wax more often than you or I floss. She must also be enthusiastic, agile and aware that anal sex now comes as standard on the menu of any hooker's delights. For safety reasons, she should always ring the office once she is in a taxi and on her way home. I expect you are wondering about the book's dirty bits (come on, be honest). Well, once you are used to the idea of the more outre acts a prostitute may perform - self-fisting, anyone? - these quickly come to seem as titillating as watching the drum of a tumble-dryer revolve. Like any girl, Belle has lovers (some know about her "career", others do not) and a gang of pals. But perhaps because she is determined to protect her identity, these creatures don't live on the page. The same, alas, goes for her clients.
What Belle does best is reveal the scant, prosaic motivations of men who pay for sex; and it is this lack of embellishment that finally convinces you of the authenticity of her strangely banal document. As she asks one client, a bestselling author: "Wasn't it Dashiell Hammett who said you don't pay a call girl to do what she does, you pay her to leave afterwards?" Her customers are not losers, and rarely are they kinky. Mostly, they just want the same things all men want, only quickly, effortlessly, without all that risotto and Sauvignon, without any clever talk or gooey eye contact. I suppose what I am saying is that the sex in The Intimate Adventures is - well, of course it is - transactional. In the end, though, this is what strangles the book at birth. A deal is a deal. Take away the whips and paddles, the lubricants and glass marbles, and what you are left with is an account book. Funny that a publisher wrote her a fat cheque, I presume, without noticing this.
Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer