Dress up as an accident victim and you can have an excellent conversationabout a new library

It was the great Cynthia Payne who once memorably observed that it was impossible to get any sense out of men until they had been "de-spunked". I have always enjoyed the hydraulic brutality of this prescription, even if its underlying assumption - that sexual frustration is the major progenitor of nonsense - does so much to undermine the entire romantic tradition.

A rather similar, although more modest, proposition arrived in the post from north London. A Mr A C Chalmers wrote to say that he thoroughly disliked a recent piece in which I argued that an essential precondition for sadomasochism was not a wardrobe full of whips and vinyl costumes, but a seriously undeveloped sense of humour. He was particularly irritated by my suggestion that the worst part of an S&M encounter must surely be the detumescent phase when you are required to conduct a serious conversation with someone dressed from head to toe in a material normally associated with the worst excesses of 1960s sofa-making.

"What you totally failed to realise," he wrote, "is that fancy dress is strangely liberating. When you are wearing something outrageous, there is no need for the verbal facetiousness that characterises so many other social occasions. I've had some of my most meaningful conversations while dressed 'in full regalia'."

I probably wouldn't have given this letter another thought if I hadn't found myself at a loose end in Norwich the other evening and paid an unexpected visit to my former sister-in-law. Moira and I were in the same philosophy reading group back in the Eighties, but we rather lost touch when she went to live with a former cereal farmer who astutely adapted to the changing climatic conditions in Norfolk and is now making a modest fortune growing very small courgettes for fashionable restaurants.

She was pleased enough to see me, but explained that she was off to a neighbour's fancy-dress party that evening. Why didn't I come along? The theme would be "Doctors and Patients". But nobody was taking it too seriously. She, herself, had opted for a large cushion down her skirt to simulate advanced pregnancy, while her partner, Ted, who was still out in the fields stunting courgettes, would almost certainly don a spotted tablecloth and a large pair of plastic ears and go as "Mad Cow Disease". After a failed attempt to assemble "Viagra Overdose" with the help of one of Ted's larger courgettes, I eventually opted for simplicity and stuck six Elastoplasts across my face, smeared each with tomato ketchup, and went as "Road Accident Victim".

Before arriving, I assumed that the point of the occasion would be to stay in role, and I mentally rehearsed an account of how I had sustained my injuries when a tractor knocked me off my bicycle on the outskirts of Diss. But this was redundant. A C Chalmers was completely vindicated. After a few preliminary remarks about the excellence of each other's fancy dress, and one or two triple entendres about nurses' bedpans and doctors' stethoscopes, nearly everyone settled down to talk of serious matters. In one corner, a gynaecologist fervently debated the widening of the A11 with an elephantiasis victim; while over by the drinks table, a man bound from head to foot in bloodstained bandages bent down low to explain the architectural merits of Norwich's new hi-tech library to a double amputee.

"It's always the same," Moira assured me on our way home across the fields. "When they're in normal business clothes, they can't say a thing to each other."

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo