I'll be honest, my heart sank to my boots when I heard that there was to be a Northern Irish version of EL James sado-masochistic fantasy, 50 Shades of Grey. The original novel, endlessly described as 'mummy porn', has been eagerly hoovered up by women the world over, and has become the fastest selling book of all time.
Why so many women are titillated by the thought of getting punished in various imaginative (and not so imaginative) ways is a troubling sociological question. And let's face it, the writing itself is as tawdry and impoverished as the content. The same is true of the numerous Fifty Shades spin-offs, such as an 'erotic' version of Jane Eyre, titled, with depressing inevitability, Jane Eyre Laid Bare. That's sacrilege, to my mind.
So how was Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue, by Belfast woman Leesa Harker, going to measure up? Is it simply a brazen attempt to cash in on the global publishing phenomenon? Or is there something more going on here?
For a start, Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue is a parody, which is a relief. I don't think I could have handled a straight homage to the original, transcribed into Norn Iron speak. It would be almost impossible to imagine a sexually-charged spanking scene on the Albertbridge Road, for instance, with décor by Wyse Byse.
Harker, who is quite happy to describe herself as a feminist, shares my disquiet about the treatment of the female heroine in Fifty Shades, Anastasia, at the hands of a bondage-loving billionaire.
'She allows him to whip the tripe out of her,' shrieks Harker in disgust. 'It's all about controlling her, taking her away from her friends. I mean, how could she fancy that weirdo? I worry that young women are going for this kind of stuff.'
Neither does Harker think much of the writing itself. 'I haven't read it all to be honest: I got it months and months ago, and I thought it was dire and repetitive. I fast forwarded through to the dirty bits, to see if they were any better, but they weren't.'
Amazed that her friends were so in thrall to the twisted charms of Mr Grey, Harker decided to start a spoof version of the book on Facebook, set in Ulster. They loved it, and passed it on. 'It all started on a Friday night in July,' recalls Harker, a former bank manager who is now a full-time single parent. 'My daughter is only two, and she's a tricky eater, so I was sitting with her while she was eating her dinner. I had the laptop with me, and I just started typing there and then.
'By Monday I had 1,000 new followers on Facebook, by Thursday it had gone up to 15,000, and now I think it's around 26,000. It was all by word of mouth, it went like wildfire around offices. It's in our language, our dialect, and I think that's why people have really embraced it.'
The Belfast Anastasia is known as Maggie Muff, and Harker thought it seemed apposite that she meet her Mr Grey at a back-to-work interview at the dole office. Put it this way, Miss Muff is certainly not the quiet, passive type: she loves 'bucking at the boney' with her many men friends, and she's pretty free with her fists.
Within weeks, Belfast-based publishers, Blackstaff Press, got in touch, and now Harker's pastiche of Fifty Shades will be launched on September 27. With 400 people already confirmed on the guest list, it's expected to be the largest book launch for a Northern Irish author ever.
Evidently this is not a victory for literary publishing (it's certainly quite a departure from Blackstaff's usual output), but Harker is refreshingly down-to-earth about it all. She knows that Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue is just a bit of bawdy fun, a shameless spoof of the original – and one that could prove surprisingly lucrative in the local market.
Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue: an extract
Well, yer man doin le interview was like somethin outta le Kays catalogue – tall, dark an bucksome. He had a gorgiz grey suit on, like one ye’d see in Tapman, an a grey silk tie an all. Le most gorgiz green sparkly eyes lat stared through me, settin my flaps on fire. Praper buck material like. So here’s me, ‘Bout ye, big lawd!’ An sure when I went to walk intil le room, didden I trip on my pack of twenty fegs lat I’d drapped in shack an fall intil le room, head first an intil his arms. An sure I tuck a pure redner an he just smiles at me an I’m thinkin, Oh here, he wants intil my knickers big time! An he says til me lat he’s fell over before too, an here’s me til myself, aye prabably trippin over his big trouser-snake!
Well sure his name was Mr Red, so I said I’d call him Mr Red White and Blue.
in tribute to le Queen’s Jubilee an all, God save hor. So he said okay til lat. Nie he’s nat from le Road or nathin. Said he was from up le country, somewhere called Lurgan, but had a flat down le town like. Well sure he was askin me all sorts – when I last worked an what my qualifications were – an sure didden Big Sally-Ann forget to fill me in on le friggin info so sure wasn’t I makin it up as I went along? I told him she had a gcse in knittin an art cos she had stitched Big Darren Bonk-Eye Brown’s cheek up wih hor da’s fishin wire when he had staggered intil a lamp post after a lack-in in le Tavern. An nen she had helped Mark Pyscho Bates to write graffiti over le front door of some touts in le estate a few years ago. An lat’s all I cud think of. But sure Mr Red White and Blue seemed to like it.
He was scribblin down everythin I said an luckin up at me every nie an nen wih lem green twinkly eyes an half-smilin. I think he was, like, mentally undressin me, le dirty baste. If only he knew I went commando his pecker wud be knackin le table from underneath. So sure didden he say I cud stay on le Bru an come back in six months, so here bes me, ‘Aye.’
Nen lis is him, ‘Good. Hope to see you soon.’
An lis is me, ‘Awye.’ Nen I uncrossed my legs again an sure didden he just smile an len get up to hold le door for me. An lis is me til myself, nie most wee lawds wud be takin a charge at me wih their flies down after a luck at le Muff through lem leggins. An I says til myself, sure he must be a gay len. An I’ve enough gay friends, what with our Will, Big Sally-Ann’s wee brother, an his gang of Kylie-lovin chums. But sure I cudden stap thinkin about Mr Red White and Blue le rest of le day. His posh wee accent, his grey suit from Tapman an his lovely green eyes.
I cudden even cancentrate when I was shapliftin a bax a fish fingers outta Iceland an sure I gat caught by le security guard. I had til pramise him I’d meet him out le back of le shap to give him a blowie, but sure didden I do a runner on le dope. Sure he prabably stood ler til midnight waitin for me, le buck eejit. Nen when I gat home, all I cud do was think about Mr Red White and Blue’s tallywhacker an his wee half-smile an sure I was moist, so I was.