Every season pops up a book “they’re” all reading. Once, it was Birdsong – wartime love and honour. Then it was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – wartime love and honour. Now, it’s 50 Shades of Grey, peacetime lust, a red room of pain and nipple clamps. We’ve evolved.
50 Shades of Grey can be safely termed a phenomenon, with 30 million sales worldwide
Last night’s Channel 4 show documented this undoubted phenomenon – the UK’s fastest-selling paperback of all time, with 30 million copies sold worldwide SINCE APRIL, translation rights sold to 41 countries, including six reprints already in Germany (???) – and had a game stab at explaining its success.
Inspired by the teenage hormones of Twilight and penned by E L James, a mother from Brentford (brilliant – somewhere between the Coach and Horses and the Gillette Tower, passions were stirring), 50 Shades tells the age-old story of a young virginal office-worker Anastasia fall into the clutches of the enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey - Barbara Cartland would be proud. But instead of throwing her on his horse, he throws her in his red room of pain and proceeds to take her through the manual of BDSM – “I thought that was a driving school,” admitted one pundit.
I am reliably informed this, in fact, refers to Bondage, Dominance and Sado-Masochism, the appeal of which was debated by pundits.
“It’s Mills and Boon with butt plugs,” said Kathy Lette. “It taps into a lot of women’s need for non-consensual sex,” explained Bonnie Greer. “We’re fed up making decisions every day, we just want to be dominated sometimes,” was the conclusion of a reading group. “I don’t know a woman who wants an anal fisting of a Friday night,” disagreed Rachel Johnson.
No one was claiming 50 Shades to be great literature. Some commentators were angry about the implications that an interest in BDSM relies on a traumatic past, while others questioned the whole dominant male aspect, including one Madame, who proved her case with a set of tools – “health and safety permitting”.
More ambitiously, the programme attempted to track if the book’s influence has seeped into readers lives, for which there were a couple of experts on hand. “It’s a fantasy world to give us some ideas,” promised sexologist Dr Pamela Stephenson. “I think it can save people’s marriages,” claimed TOWIE alumna Amy Childs.
And we also had some eye-boggling data from Ann Summers, whose sales of paddles, handcuffs, and restraints have seen a rise in sales from 30 to 50%.
In this time of austerity, one book-keeper reported that another 90,000 ‘jiggle balls’ were on order after they’d all sold out – this was said as though they were talking about cornflakes – and there was a geographical element, too. Apparently, Cardiff and Liverpool had doubled in sex toy sales, Stoke and Portsmouth tripled, while… Slough! – had seen figures multiply eight-fold. David Brent has a lot to answer for.
Of course, there are some people that have never needed any encouragement. According to polls, 37% of couples have tried a bit of bondage, including my favourite inclusion of the programme, Alison and Michael from Hertfordshire.
Cuddled up together, they sweetly described how Alison likes to be ‘kept in hand’, hence the collar with the lock around her neck, and the flourish of a flogger. “I really like the marks they leave,” she added.
These two, obviously not scaring the horses and clearly miles away from the meanness shown by Christian Grey, made a convincing argument for people pushing the boundaries in a consensual loving relationship, even if it meant referring to their “Excel spread sheet of options” on occasion.
We left them happily cooking their meatballs, collar still evident, once again proving that truth is always stranger, and far more interesting, than fiction.