Saturday, 1 April 2006

History and Condom Machines


For centuries London has acted as the great corrupter. Agents of history, untainted by the risqué values of this great metropolis have arrived through its gates and left with a collection of moral vices and, no doubt, a corresponding quantity of venereal diseases. The young Benjamin Franklin left the shores of America in 1724 to buy a printing press in England; upon arriving in London he quickly realised that his backers had deserted him and that he would have to pay his own way. In his later biographies, Franklin wrote that he had indulged in many ‘foolish intrigues with low women’. By ‘low women’ he of course meant prostitutes, who were described by a contemporary chronicler as ‘lechery-layers of around a guinea purchase’. At the time prostitutes were to be mainly found sitting in hairdressers shops, which were ‘seldom to be found without a whore as a bookseller’s shop in St Paul’s churchyard without a parson’. Presumably the consumers of the time could get a ‘foolish intrigue’ thrown in with their short back and sides.
Upon taking his first job he became disgusted at the habits of his fellow workers who believed that hard work required strong beer. Workers of the time typically drank a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint with breakfast, a pint at midmorning, a pint with the midday meal, a pint in the afternoon and a pint at days end. When Franklin refused to contribute to the beer tab at his workplace he was ostracised by his colleagues who irritated him immensely by inserting errors into his work at every opportunity. When he confronted them about these activities they feigned innocence and claimed it was the fault of the company ghost.

As I write this, I recall a laughable debate about a year ago concerning the implementation of 24 hour licensing. This act by the government, hysterical authorities claimed, would bring about the fall of civilisation as we know it. Such assumptions fail to take account of the fact that throughout our glorious history some of our most important figures have been raging alcoholics. By way of illustration, Prime Minister William Pitt the younger was in the habit of drinking six bottles of port, two bottles of Madeira and a half bottle of claret everyday. He would often appear in the House of Commons drunk and would sometimes disappear behind the speakers chair in mid debate to throw up. Some attributed this to ‘nervousness’ but a quick analysis of his daily alcohol intake gives me cause for scepticism.

Those who moan about the worst excesses of bad taste television should take a look at what passed for entertainment back in the early eighteenth century. A handbill from the time which was displayed at Hockley in the Hole reads:

‘This is to give notice to all gentlemen, gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honylane market… Likewise a green bull to be baited which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him; also a mad ass to be baited, with a variety of bull baiting and bear baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. Beginning exactly at three of the clock’

Venereal disease has been a problem throughout the centuries and casting my eye over the pages of the metro on my morning commute I discovered another historical gem. Correspondence released at the National Archives in Kew shows that "a good deal of trouble" was caused by the girls in the West End of London during the second world war. Officials wanted to bring the girls, aged 15 to 17 and from approved schools - a type of care home - under control. A total of 37 were arrested between May 1942 and April 1943 and a Home Office letter to police noted that many girls "frequented undesirable cafes” where they could strike up acquaintances with American soldiers who had plenty of money. These American soldiers passed the girls on to their friends and in a very short time, any one girl could be responsible for infecting a considerable number of people." The letters between the Ministry of Health, the Home Office, police and local authorities show there were 116 recorded cases of gonorrhoea and syphilis among the girls. It quickly became standard practice to check absconded girls for VD as soon as they arrived back at the care home.

Of course such matters remain a problem in this day and age and I can help but think that much of this is due to the impracticality of condom dispensing machines. These contraptions should, in a well-ordered universe, be designed to reflect the situation of purchase. I, as the consumer, merely wish to buy the confounded objects in as quickly and as secretive a manner as possible without incurring too much embarrassment. The other day I visited the pub with the sole intention of using one of these bloody things and was left staring at it for what seemed like an age because I found the instructions for use on the front of the machine to be utterly incomprehensible. The Byzantine set of directions stated that levers had to be pulled, coins inserted and buttons pushed in, all in the correct sequential order as if it were a nuclear detonation device. Having roughly worked out what I was supposed to do, I then reached into my pocket and discovered I did not have enough change to be able to make my purchase. I decided to get some change at the bar and ordered a half of Stowford Press, a most excellent cider. Since the cider was largely superfluous to the original purpose of my visit and I was anxious to get home, I downed the liquid and prepared to head back to the facilities. ‘You drank that quick’ said the barmaid with a air of reproach in her voice. She must now think I am some kind of alcoholic. ‘I’m in a hurry’ I said and left the room to revisit the machine. When I got there I realised with horror that the infernal contraption only took one pound coins and categorically refused to take any other form of remuneration. For a moment I toyed with the idea of asking the barmaid to exchange the two-pound coin she has given me for two one pound coins but eventually thought better of it. Like Alexander the Great, one must occasionally accept that destiny often stands in the way of personal ambition. To fight against it is foolish and one must accept the ruling of the fates.

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