Apparently the S&M scene is back in favour among the adult population of Britain. It's not really something that you can gauge on the high street, it's not exactly "boho-chic" when it comes to conspicuous trends, but according to Philip Schofield and Femail, your dad's applying for planning permission for a dungeon extension and your mum's doing the big shop in a ball gag. Of course, the blame for this craze has been levelled at one work in particular, a little book called 50 Shades Of Grey. But from what I can gather, that book is basically My Fair Lady with added cock and ball torture, so I find that a little hard to believe.
Listen to those who'll tell you that Britain's still more Notting Hill and school fete than it is Street Crime UK and pre-teen pregnancies and you'll hear that we're a pretty reserved bunch. Are we really entering a new dawn of domestic debauchery? I decided to wangle my way into a London Fetish Week afterparty, an event I was confident would be reflective of an entire nation's sexual tastes, to find out. As it happened, the organisers were happy to have both myself and a photographer down for the night, but there was one stipulation.
I had to spend some time in "the cage". This began to worry me. I've witnessed some fairly sordid stuff in my time, but there's a big difference between pretending not to notice another couple screwing in the same room as you at a house party, and facing a barrage of steampunk penises thrust through the steel bars of something bought cheap from an illegal Russian circus.
Knowing this was the kind of club that had a slightly stricter dress code than "no hats, no hoods", I had to get myself the appropriate attire. Because I'm not Kanye West or Dave Gahan, I don't actually own any leather trousers, so I managed to borrow some off a female friend and find a dirty black T-shirt on my bedroom floor. The dog collar I had to buy, but all things considered, the S&M lifestyle seemed a lot easier to join in with than I'd imagine it would be.
Only later did I find out that the collar marked me out as a "sub" – i.e. somebody who's more into the masochism part of the sado-masochism thing. I wondered if the organisers had set my vanilla ass up for some kind of bondage prank.
As I stumbled towards the club's interior, strange figures came looming at me through the darkness. Some parts of it were completely unlit, while others were disconcertingly bright, switching between the two made me felt disorientated like when you go for a late-night joint and you imagine that a sex attacker, an unmanned drone or a bear will come hurtling at you out of the black.
Eventually I found myself in a large room that felt like a deserted department store car park, lined with all sorts of archaic torture equipment which I assume had been loaned out for the night from the nearby London Dungeon. Every time I walked past one of these ominous pieces of apparatus, I half expected an out-of-work actor to pop up and shout something about the role of capital punishment in the Victorian penal system.
Eventually I chanced upon the cage, and found this guy in there doing the shift before mine. We exchanged pleasantries like two bus drivers stopping traffic to have a chat about last night's football, and he seemed to be having fun, so I let him have the cage a little longer.
Walking around, it seemed that everybody there had their own idea of what constitutes a great night out. You had your subs, your dommes, your gimps, your goths, and then you had guys like this, whose idea of getting his rocks off was spending four hours with his balls pressed against the cold floor clutching a girl's handbag like a petrified old lady on a Romanian night bus.
Also making unorthodox use of the lost property bin were this trio. I always wonder about people who are into a very particular fetish, if they ever see a pretty girl on the tube and think "Wow, that girl's cute, I wonder what she'd look like with a shoe on her face?" in the same way the rest of us might imagine having a grope in a park or holding hands at the South Bank branch of Giraffe.
It's a strange idea, most clubs are full of motion; all touching, drinking and grinding, yet this place was disturbingly still, courtships unfolding slowly like a succession of private Beckett plays dotted around the room. No one would be getting laid by doing the robot dance tonight.
Finally the time came for me to punch in. It was still early days though, so I found myself somewhat unappreciated. I moped round around my cell, getting fewer visitors than Peter Sutcliffe and feeling less like a sex slave at Caligula's housewarming than a trouble-making puppy who'd been put in its travel cage because it'd pissed in the laundry.
One of the questions I'd asked myself beforehand was "What kind of music do they play at a fetish club?" I was expecting banging, Berlin dark-room techno and/or Rammstein, maybe some Cradle Of Filth for the Kerrang! crowd, but it wasn't what I expected.
In fact, most of it sounded like Julio Bashmore. This was music usually associated with snapbacks rather than gimp masks, but I was happy to hear it. It reminded me of home, I began to feel like how I imagine a man on death row feels, hearing the voices of his family on the way to the chair.
I became even more of a pathetic sideshow when the stage became the setting for the annual Fetish Fashion Awards, the only catwalk show where nobody wants to sit in the front row. Although the pinstripe boiler suit with coffin lining tie is something that I'm sure I saw in the autumn issue of Another Man.
I don't know if you can see it properly in this picture, but this lady emerged onto the stage with a FAKE black penis poking out of her dress. Which, given the sheer amount of real dick on show in the room, didn't seem that shocking to me. Was this a provocative comment on colonialism or race relations? Or was it something that, yet again, was supposed to be sexy, but was actually just a bit grim?
Every good awards ceremony needs an unfunny, try-hard compere, and the Fetish Fashion Awards were no exception. I didn't catch this girl's name, but I'll bet my bottom dollar it was "Miss Anne Thropy" or something clever like that. She described the weather as being "as grey as a school jumper today" and claimed to be "somewhere between Kate Middleton and Prince Albert", which – I'm guessing – is a witty reference to the genital piercing rather than the doomed husband of Queen Victoria. If I had to guess what her fetish was, I'd say it was sticking thesauruses up her own ass.
In the crowd, you could see all the regular faces; Alexa Chung, Anna Wintour, A$AP Rocky, Emma Watson, midget in a corset, Lagerfeld. No sign of Dita Von Teese, though, which will have disappointed Johnny Borrell (front, left, bag, pint) who just loves that burlesque shit.
Then these girls appeared, dressed as a fusion of Girls Aloud, the Power Rangers and deep-rooted emotional problems.
Speaking of deep-rooted emotional problems, one of the collections on show was themed around Batman & Robin. I actually really liked that movie when I was nine, Alicia Silverstone and Uma Thurman became pre-pubescent crushes of mine.
In the years since though, I've realised that the movie is awful, and these girls managed to entirely kill any lingering attraction I might have had to either character. I felt like my eroto-normativity was being mocked in front of my eyes, I felt like somebody who'd gone into Rough Trade and asked for a Lemar album.
If my memory serves my correctly (what was I supposed to do, take notes inside the cage?) this was the collection that was crowned the winner. Fetish models are an interesting breed, they all seem to posture like Elizabeth Balthory and talk about how depraved they are, yet speak to them and they mostly seem to be small-town girls who gatewayed through Paloma Faith then mistook a subculture you can buy in a catalogue for a Bohemian existence.
The show had ended, but I was still stuck in my cell of steel and tedium. The party was in full flow, but I was getting about as much attention as the smoothie stall at a Biker Bash. I tried to dance accordingly, I even tried rubbing myself up against the grill and shouting obscenities like one of Hannibal Lecter's neighbours when Clarice Starling walks past, but alas the crowd seemed uninterested.
Maybe they could tell my heart wasn't really in it. Maybe they have some kind of radar that stops them spanking people who have just bent over in the street to tie up their shoelaces, like the one that gay people apparently have to help them tell who's just a lame breeder in a deep-V T-shirt.
I took a break from the cage, which was a good decision, because I met this louche old geezer at the bar. He was an interesting proposition; he had the air of an experienced passenger jet pilot or a Magic FM DJ rather than a prospective God of Fuck.
Obviously there's the long-standing cliche about accountants and suburban domanatrices, but this wasn't a soundproofed bedroom in Virginia Water, this was a hardcore fetish night in a dingy club in South London. He was the first person who made me wonder if this kind of thing was actually moving towards the mainstream.
The music was getting more and more industrial and the flirting was getting more medieval. As the ethical leather whips cracked against fleshy, alabaster arses in time to the music, I began to notice something. For all the open depravity, there was no real sex going on.
Just when I was starting to doubt the event's mettle, this tapestry of total darkness hoved into view. In this picture alone we've got dommes, subs, foot fetishists and a guy who looks like a professional darts player. They seemed like they'd been thrown together through circumstance, perhaps at a self-help class, rather than people who harboured any genuine desire to have sex with each other. Perhaps the fetish scene has as much to do with real sex as salsa dancing does. Or perhaps penetration's just for squares now.
I decided to venture back to the relative safety of the cage, where I made a friend. He was a little bit shy (his penis isn't actually erect, it's just flapping around in the dance) and wouldn't tell me his name, but he was a nice enough chap and we soon bonded like two people from different parts of the world who'd found themselves shifting bricks on the same building site. We didn't speak the same language, but we shared the same vocation, and that was good enough for me.
Sure, he was a bit weird with the slinky round his neck and his purple cock jumping up towards me like the "It could be you!" Lotto finger, but he was a darn sight more civilised than the chap on his knees to the left of us, who I later saw masturbate into his own flip-flops. (Union Jack design, in case you were wondering.) Once the deed was done and his juice had dribbled out into his slippers, he proceeded to splosh around the club in them like a schoolboy in a pair of cross-country trainers.
After the Silver Surfer left me to my own devices I began to get into the swing of things, and even managed to garner myself a bit of female attention. I'm sure she was probably more interested in setting fire to my nipples than a dancefloor smooch and a BBM pin swap, but hey, at least I wasn't feeling like a sniffer dog handler at Global Gathering any more.
When she left, I decided to go find her. Maybe she was wifey material, and we'd end up back here one day in 40 years time with all the other couples, reminiscing about the time we first met.
Alas, all I found were gimps. I tried to ask this guy if he'd seen the vision in PVC who'd stolen my heart, but he was keeping schtum. She was lost to me like tears in a tsunami, a siren who'd vanished into one of the club's dark corners to crush some other, luckier guy's balls with her heels.
I was gripped by a sudden fit of melancholy. Maybe it wasn't to be; maybe I was destined to spend my life like this guy. I wondered if that's how gimps are born; if they're just ordinary men who'd been so hurt by conventional love that they could no longer bear to feel a part of it. Looking on at the rest of us laughing and loving, muffling their tears behind their rubber cowls of pain.
This one didn't seem so sensitive though. He glared at Jake the photographer and I like we were the proprietors of a cupcake and puppies shop who'd just moved in next to the dying estate pub he was running.
I headed back to my cage for one final bash at finding myself a fetish bride, but I wasn't in luck. The pair lovingly dancing together next to me as I stood alone, in someone else's clothes, in a cage, in a dark room full of strangers in a part of London I'm wholly unfamiliar with, cemented the fact that this was essentially a domain for couples. In reality, the clientele didn't seem too different from what you might expect to find at a Newton Faulkner gig, they just wore latex collared corsets instead of fleeces from Fat Face.
I was tired, lonely and bored in my cell. I felt like I was now taking part in an elaborate magic trick that nobody was interested in. I felt like one of the people who got the 5AM Sunday morning slot at the Trafalgar Square plinth or the host of a webcam sex show that nobody was watching. It was clear that I would never be part of this world, I realised that I like girls who wear skirts and smell like shower gel and cigarettes, I started to text one as I peeled the leather trousers off my soaking calves.
All in all, how did I feel about the night? Well, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, you can't help but feel they're pretending to be more debauched than they actually are – something they have in common, weirdly, with the worst examples of student lad culture. I felt like there was also a preachiness to the fetish crowd: a conviction that they are the liberated and sexually confident ones who have a more profound understanding of base human impulses, and that the rest of us are just placated sacks of terrified meat whose personal Kama Sutras haven't been updated since the Titanic went down.
But on the other hand, I couldn't deny that everyone there seemed to be having fun, and if that's how you have fun, then nights like these must be both exhilarating and – because of their rarity – incredibly relieving experiences. It's just the idea that there's any kind of message behind it that seems like a myth to me. Still, I did like the trousers.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Photos: Jake Lewis
In an earlier version of this post, we weren't as careful as we should have been to protect people's identities. We'd like to apologise for any problems caused by this.
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