"I know thee, though thou art all filthy."
(Dante's Inferno, Canto VIII)
Before last Saturday, the only stag do I'd been on was my own father's. It was a sleepy, pints-and-darts affair in a pub, though there was a moment where Dad's four brothers persuaded him to stuff a whole egg in his mouth. Now it was the turn of my Zimbabwean friend Ben, whose brother Hugh sent out the invites and requested £37 from each guest for an unspecified activity. We were told to be at the Crate Brewery in Hackney Wick for 1:00pm on the appointed day and, ominously, to bring swimming trunks. A later message asked us to deposit our "shaved pubic hair into the pillowcase on arrival. Hugh, I assume you are bringing the tar?" I genuinely couldn't tell if this was a joke.
The Crate Brewery and Pizzeria is a lovely place, a gently hipster urban meadow rivering with the hope of early summer. Drizzle speckles the beer in its pitchers, but the beer doesn't mind. The canal, dappled with a light wind, peeps through the prison bars of its bridges and tempts cyclists in for a swim. Behind a cloud lurks the sun, that coy, ancient, bewildered god.
Then Ben arrives with three friends I don't know and they make him put on black pleather trousers, a fetish string vest and a fez; the deck shoes stay on. "Has anyone got any scissors?" shouts one of them. "I want to cut out the arse." Alas, no scissors.
With a thunderous clang, a rusty old barge crashes into a bridge. Huge cheers, and what about the symbolism? The Ballardian Rosie & Jim of our man-flock rear-ending the bridge of decency. "They're pirates!" someone roars, about the family on the barge. Is this offensive? (This question recurs like a heartbeat throughout the day). There's a non-committal murmur from the group, but no actual words, so he repeats: "They're like real-life pirates." He looks at me. "Yes, they are a bit."
After a few frothies and a conveyor belt of arthouse pizzas, a shy, pony-tailed woman called Jo arrives and says it's "our turn". Because I didn't buy a pitcher, I'm sent with two others to the off-license to buy "loads more beers". We end up with 48 cans of international lager, a World Cup of booze. On the street the three of us bump back into Jo, who leads us to an abandoned warehouse. It doesn't really have a door, but in we go.
We wend our way through the dusty labyrinth, Kiss FM from a distant radio our only compass. We eventually find the crucial door, the only door in the world. Bursting for the loo, I clank it open with my blue bag of beers and we descend.
There's too much to take in at once. A paddling pool. Twenty classroom chairs. Three women in bikinis. Twenty blokes, braying tipsily. Professor Green on the radio. Ben has stripped down to a pair of leopard-print boxers and one of the women squirts baby oil on him. He is summoned to the pool by two of the women, and the three of them start to wrestle.
A couple of minutes in, when Ben body-slams one of his opponents out of the pool, the third woman stops the fight and says it's against the rules to stand up: Ben must be punished. He is made to crouch down on all fours, his head viced between the legs of one of the women, and his leopard briefs are pulled down. "Has anyone got a belt?" Rapturous cheers! With Lachlan's brown Zara belt, Ben receives six of the best, the last a particularly clean pop. He pulls his pants back up for one more fight, then gingerly clambers out of the arena like a squid who's shit himself.
"Who's next?" Up jumps the alpha Goliath of the group, a bull-necked personal trainer utterly in his element and, by now, steaming drunk. Off comes the T-shirt, quick smother of baby oil, and he's in. His technique is more refined, if less flailingly unpredictable, than Ben's, but he's still beaten. Ben, as stag, gets to decide who's next and there's a quick changing of the guard as the referee swaps in for one of her colleagues. Ben points at me.
I do my best to get out of it, explaining that I haven't got any trunks, am talking to Rohit about the Indian elections and I still don't really know the rules. Amidst the chorus of boos, Ben's stepbrother throws a pair of swimmers at me:
"Put these on and get on with it."
I do as I'm told, in the grim "wet room" at the back (shower, loo, sodden copy of Nuts), and emerge to a hero's welcome. Another of the boys, a teacher who hasn't wrestled himself but has been watching closely, says the tip is to "keep them together". I trudge to the front and get in the ring with my two adversaries, who couldn't be nicer. Whilst plying me with oil, they explain that it's the best of three rounds, one man vs two women, and the aim is to strangle your opponent, with your arms or even your legs, until they concede defeat by tapping on the floor.
I lasted about three minutes, a blearily frenzied, lopingly unsexual mess. As you might expect from trained jujutsu fighters, they were very strong indeed and there was a particularly depressing moment, as I scampered about the ring to avoid another throttling, where I looked up and noticed nobody in the crowd was really even watching.
It is very strange how quickly the whole thing felt completely normal. After my bout, I had a quick shower and returned to my seat for the rest of the day's play, as if we were watching a Test match at Lord's. None of our lot beat the gladiators and, once our two hours were up, it was handshakes and photos all round.
"How many of these do you do a day?" I ask one of the women, thinking I was Louis Theroux. She laughs, with a glint of exhaustion. "This is our third today, and we've got two more."
Think, think you idiot! Think of a non-patronising question that allows her to say whether she sees this as a money-for-old-rope Saturday laugh, where pissed berks become easy punchbags, or whether she finds the whole thing, the oil, the shouting, those awful chairs, a bit weird.
"Gosh. Well, good luck."
Interview over, we say our goodbyes and pile onto the Overground, exactly the shambling, heaving bunch of tossers whose arrival in your carriage as a sober passenger makes your soul weep. Ben, between asking a Lithuanian girl what book she was reading and claiming he'd read it too, tells me and Rohit that we'd need collared shirts to get into the strip club and suggests we nip into Primark while they settle into a Soho pub.
Ro and I end up in a BHS changing room with a two-for-£25 office shirt deal that comes with a free tie, which Ro gallantly says I can keep. Wearing our new shirts out of the shop like a particularly exciting new pair of shoes, we find the chaps in the pub, a mellow antechamber before the next descent. We've had the vices of violence; now for the sex.
I've never been to a strip club before, but this one, somewhere near Piccadilly and twenty bob a head, was a hothouse of polluted gender politics, stereotypes of stereotypes, an end-of-the-pier tanker of anti-progress that leaves a slick seedier than baby oil on all those who enter. The alpha dandies launch into it with competitive aplomb, ordering private dance after private dance, while we betas are less forthcoming. At eleven they project the England-Italy World Cup match on a screen opposite the main stage, a bleakly apt sideshow of unattainable fantasies.
I don't want a private dance, because I already feel a bit sick and wouldn't know where to look, but I do want to Theroux a bit more. Each time I'm offered a dance I say no thank you, but try to ask the offerer whether they like it here. They all tow the party persona and say of course they do, though their reasons for doing it vary: one woman works here to fund a Master's, while another says it's the thing she's best at. Eleven sheets to the wind, as soon as the footy finishes I hug Ben and jump on the night bus.
I did a bit of thinking on the journey home. I thought about the sheer accidental expanse of the day, an all-encompassing Bloomsday of confused masculinity; the emotional vertigo of turning 27, that dire, mythical age when your Young Person's Railcard expires and you are no longer young, when friends' careers suddenly look rosier than yours and it's already too late to be any sort of prodigy, but still too early to have anything remotely wise to say about the world. I thought of the mind as a room, a palace behind one door, a prison behind the other. Then I had a kebab and fell asleep in front of Mrs Brown's Boys.
Before any sort of self-righteous conclusion, I want to make clear that I love Ben, absolutely love him and his easy wit and warmth and sense of mischief. I also really like all of his friends, many as sceptical as me, and don't judge their or anyone else's behaviour; I genuinely enjoyed their company all day and was extremely touched to be invited.
But, even with the prophylactic of irony, I found it very difficult to justify or laugh off Saturday's events to work colleagues on Monday morning without sounding like Jim Davidson. It is not particularly brave or original to question the ethics of strip clubs; instead, I'd question the way atavistic, rites-of-passage bloodsport-sexism has become a staple of the stag do, that parody of unaccountable, get-it-out-yer-system decadence, a moral black hole where women are paid by groups of men to parade themselves as objects of sex, violence or both.
Why did I wrestle? Why did I go to the strip club? Because it was Ben's day and I didn't want to be a stick in the mud. Dreadful excuses from a dreadful man. But there's something even less acceptable with the stag as a peer-pressure-cooker that forces these social Sophie's Choices, and now might be the time to dismantle it.
For my stag do, I've decided that I'm going to book a private area in a pub garden, buy twenty copies of the Sunday Times and we're all going to sit and read quietly over a few ales. Thence we might come forth to rebehold the stars.