The black stuff may no longer rumble on lorries along the prim avenues of Morningside or indeed anywhere else, but the spirit of the gag endures. No joke without fire and all that.
Scotland’s capital is internationally renowned and just the other day topped a poll of the world’s best cities. No survey is required, however, to confirm it as the best place for a sex stooshie. On such matters, Auld Reekie’s knack for getting its knickers in a twist is without equal and has been for ever.
The most recent concerns Edinburgh’s strip clubs. The local council, armed with new powers, are intent on shutting them down on the grounds they objectify women.
Argument and rebuttal have flown back and forth like so many tasselled brassieres, which may no longer be a feature of strippers’ routines and is possibly me showing my age as a child of Benny Hill (though not actual spawn from the saucy comedian’s loins – okay, I’ll shut up now).
Objectified? Not us, insist the dancers. OK then, stripping is dangerous work. No, the clubs have bouncers and CCTV. There’s more risk of women being victims of harassment and violence in nightclubs.
OK then, it’s not work in the truest sense. “Dancers are not workers,” contends Mandy Watt, deputy leader of the Labour-run council. This has stung stripper Georgie who bites back: “I say this to feminists such as her: work is work and stripping is real work. Many people do labour for the sole purpose of being able to pay rent and buy food. Stripping is no different.”
Steamed-up debates about the display of naked flesh in Embra Toon are as old as the city’s seven hills. In 1963, when according to Philip Larkin sexual intercourse began, nudity came to the Edinburgh Festival.
At a “happening”, 18-year-old Anna Kesselaar was wheeled across a hall wearing nothing but a smile, an act immediately decried as “Godlessness and dirt”. When the lord provost, Duncan Weatherstone, labelled the student “sick in mind, hand and heart”, she was forced to flee to London to escape the scandal.
Summoned back for a court case on an indecency charge which was dubbed the “Lady MacChatterley trial”, Kesselaar was acquitted, declaring: “I did it for art. And £4.”
Offering up the same justification, or plea in mitigation, nudity has been coming to Edinburgh and the Fringe ever since. The Conservative councillor Moira Knox, cast as Mary MacWhitehouse, did her best to stop much of it and her namesake John – Captain No-Fun of four centuries previous – would surely have been proud of her efforts.
But Edinburgh is the home of Jekyll and Hyde. Just behind the Usher Hall, venue for classical music recitals, nestles the “pubic triangle” encompassing three of the four strip clubs currently under threat.
Glasgow teases Edinburgh for being “all fur coat and nae knickers”. In other words, the sophistication is superficial. It’s just like other places, with as much dirt in the oysters, and maybe more so.
For, lest we forget: Danube Street, one of the most desirable crescents in the New Town, once housed Dora Noyce’s brothel which was just as coveted by visiting sailors and randy politicians.
There’s a view out there that the city fathers – or maybe these days non-binary custodians – have embarked on a Disneyfication of Edinburgh so as to present a spotless face to the big-spending tourist hordes.
But that best-city survey was conducted by Time Out, not the WRI Quarterly Review, and I bet the participants voted for edginess as well as beauty, and for evidence of real life in all its different and difficult manifestations rather than have their holiday insurance confirm the destination as some kind of anodyne, antiseptic theme park.
In the teenage years for this Edinburgher, the area around the West Port boasted a student disco, a record emporium and a football programme shop – what more could a lad want?
Regarding rites of passage, it seemed a brave thing, across town, to submit to the Scientologists’ questionnaire, re-emerging without having stumped up the joining fee. But successfully sneaking into the Western Bar underage with a moustache of boot-polished bumfluff was the more exciting challenge.
I achieved the former but was turned away from the Western just as the floorshow – in fact the performance would take place on top of the bar, in and out of the pint glasses and ashtrays – was about to begin.
A few years later as a young reporter, they let me in to talk to the girls for a story about an earlier proposed crackdown when they were just as eloquent in defence of their profession as their successors today, and just as unimpressed by their supposed moral superiors.
The council may ultimately win the war but they seem to me to be losing the intellectual argument. The dancers have challenged the authority to find them a job with the equivalent “flexibility, pay, autonomy and freedom”. And is the money the girls can earn a problem for councillors? There’s a suggestion some are miffed at dancers’ ability to privately educate their children.
The council has just floated the idea that the dancing could continue but not while naked and with routines where the sexiness has been toned down.
So who gets the job of ratifying the raunch? And, instead of flaunting the part of the anatomy where the sun doesn’t shine, will the girls now have to perform Morecambe and Wise’s “Bring Me Sunshine” complete with silly kicks?