Friday, November 27, 2009

Intimate adventures of a scientist

Belle de Jour: The intimate adventures of a London call girl
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005

This book is a bit of a cause célèbre in the UK but readers elsewhere in the world may not know that it’s the intermediate between a very successful early noughties blog and a somewhat controversial TV series starring Billie Piper, a former teen pop star and Dr Who assistant. I found a copy at Oxfam a while ago and read the first 50 pages or so, but then something else must have been more urgent and I forgot all about it. I picked it up again after the revelation that the author is a working research scientist, Brooke Magnanti, with a PhD in cancer epidemiology.

Intrigued by the strange case of Dr Magnanti and Ms. Jour (presumably she must have had a third name for the agency work?), I finished the book off quite quickly, and found it was even more fascinating to read as “The intimate adventures of a London scientist” rather than as those of an anonymous call girl.

With hindsight, it really is quite obviously the work of a scientist. In a section about comforting an acquaintance over a breakup, she concludes: “… I felt for her. I’ve been on both sides of that equation.” Similar science-inspired expressions and observations are pop up repeatedly. She often refers to her university years, though she doesn’t quite tell us what she studied and where. Or does she?

In fact, one section that is quite hilarious to read post facto is a list of “Pub Games for Whores.” One such game, designed to confuse men who try to chat you up, is to invent an “implausible occupation.” The paragraph ends:

Extra points if he actually holds that job. ‘Really? You’re an epidemiologist? What a coincidence!’ (p187)

Coincidence, indeed. The truth is in there. Also, the tabloids needn’t have bothered to chase her poor old dad. It’s in the book:

Have I mentioned that my father is an embarrassing perv? Runs in the bloodline, I suppose. (p168)

Reading the book as the work of a fellow scientist makes it quite endearing. We have all shared the same career worries at some point in our lives, after all. Although there are very few scientists who can write as well as she does. Clearly, this woman has many talents – research experience, communicates well, can deal with people even in awkward situations – so, from a society point of view, I find it troubling that she was underappreciated and unemployed for long enough to even consider prostitution.

I was glad to hear that, having explored other career paths, she’s sticking with science although her publishing success alone would probably pay the bills quite nicely. “Working in science is important to me” Magnanti told New Scientist in an interview after coming out. So good luck to her, I’m sure she will do well, and I hope that one day she’ll write about science too.

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