English fetish scene is oh so naughty but really terribly nice

LIFE is all about balance. Having recently attended a Mind Body Spirit exhibition — a plethora of alternative therapies, chakra realignments and general airy-fairy hippy-dippiness — it seems only right to check out some sex, decadence and fetish stuff.

So off I go to Erotica 2002 in London, which, according to its organisers, is "the largest adult lifestyle event in Europe".

Signs on the way in to the vast exhibition hall shout that Some People May Find Exhibits Offensive, No Public Nudity and Strictly Over 18s Only, but my first impression glancing down on the rows and rows of stands in front of a stage area is that it's just like an Ideal Homes exhibition, except with sex toys, fetish gear and assorted kinky paraphernalia instead of soft furnishings and matching curtains.

"I work at a DIY suppliers," says Jim, a middle-aged chap wearing a leather harness (and nothing else).

"It's dead handy like, for making this lot in my spare time."

'This lot' includes stocks, cages, racks and what looks like modified dentist chairs, only more painful. He gives me a load of glossy literature and I wander off into the milling crowd, following an intriguing-looking couple. Linda is 57, with mousy hair and glasses.

Her husband, Bob, is 58 and bald. They are both retired clerical workers. She's wearing a yellow blouse and a black skirt, and he's in a red shirt and black trousers. They are utterly nondescript, except their clothes are made of shiny wet-look rubber.

"It's our thing," says Linda. "We come up to London for the rubber. We wear it at home too, but not out and about in our village, obviously."

I leave them poring over a rubber catalogue, and stroll through the stalls. Fetters, for example, manufacture 650 different types of bondage furniture from simple ceiling harnesses to full S&M dungeons customised to fit in your house; SexWhips do a lovely line in horse-hair whips, while an erotic chocolate outlet sells body paint and the ubiquitous chocolate willy plus naked chocolate ladies and liquorice whips.

There are also rows and rows of bog-standard dressing-up clothes; rubber nurses, leather nuns, chain-mail frocks, furry underwear, PVC uniforms, corsetry from the tacky to the sublime, and thousands of frankly hilarious and not remotely erotic male posing pouches.

I buy a black and silver top from a semi-naked six-foot goth goddess before sternly reminding myself that this is not a shopping trip. I have work to do.

It's all so friendly, it's surreal. The thousands of people milling about are almost exclusively white, middle class and heterosexual. The gay, lesbian, transvestite and transgendered head count is minimal the majority seem to be resolutely suburban, because despite the overt sexual theme, it's all actually quite straight.

Possibly due to stringent vice laws at such a public mainstream event, there is nothing really deviant happening it's window-dressing S&M, fashion bondage, a lifestyle thing. Just all jolly good fun.

As I finally get my coat, I pass a stall selling customised teddy bears of all sizes kitted out in bondage gear French maid teddies, dominatrix teddies, slave teddies, rubber-wear teddies, teddies in crotchless lingerie. Which, at a single glance, sums up the whole English fetish scene naughty but really terribly nice.

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