Friday, 15 November 2013

Three Short Stories About Innocence

1: 1976.  Somewhere in the air.

My first trip in an aeroplane, aged 2. I was flying to Poland with my mother and sister to join my father, who was directing one of his plays in Krakow. My first memory is of looking out of the window and Mum saying 'That's Holland'. I didn't know what a Holland was.

I have subsequently learned that Van Gogh and Ruud Gullit and Gré Brouwenstijn were Dutch. Friends of mine recommend Amsterdam as a holiday destination (I'd definitely go to the Anne Frank House). There was that film maker who got shot. They used to own Surinam. I could go on.

What a lot I've learned about Holland, since 1976.

2: 2013. Keswick.

We were on holiday for my mum's birthday- me, sis, mum, bro-in-law and niece. My niece is a bright, sparky seven year old, and because she's got a brain on her it's sometimes problematic to keep her occupied while the grown-ups do grown-up things like drinking. Fortunately, she's a big fan of 'Strictly Come Dancing' and will happily watch it, making notes of the scores in her little book until she decides to do something more interesting.

Anyway, there we were in the Lakes. I had mistimed dinner so the rest of the family was watching TV while I pottered hurriedly around the kitchen. Deborah Meaden and her partner, Robin Windsor, took to the floor. My niece looked up from her colouring book.

'Mum, is Deborah married?' she asked. 'Yes' said sis.

'Is Robin married?' she asked. 'Yes' said sis.
As The Only Gay In The Room I gave my sister the Hard Look. Because my sister recognised it and is brilliant, she added 'Robin is married to a man'.

'Oh' said my niece, mildly, and went back to her colouring book.

3: 1985, London/ 2013, London

So here's the thing. On the tube tonight, I discovered that the campaign to put PG stickers on music to protect children dates from when I was one of the children worth protecting. I was 11 and then 12 in 1985, when Prince released the song 'Darlin' Nikki', whose lyrics were deemed so filthy that Tipper Gore decided children should be protected from them. My sister, five years older, listened to the album containing that song a LOT. 

I remember the lines 'I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/ I met her in a hotel lobby/ Masturbating with a magazine'. Here's how, aged 11 or 12, I parsed those lines. Firstly, I couldn't really imagine what a 'sex fiend' was. I knew there was something called sex. I knew I wasn't interested in it. Therefore a 'sex fiend' was right up there with the Dungeons and Dragons fans, another interest I didn't share.

She was in a 'hotel lobby'. I had been in very few: I connected them with waiting for my parents to pay some kind of incomprehensible bill.

Now, here we go. She was 'masturbating with a magazine'. I can't remember if I knew the word 'masturbation' when I was 11/12 but I certainly had a vague idea of the concept (Note: I didn't link my fiddling about with the 'sex' that Darlin' Nikki was a 'fiend' for. Tiddling with my dinky was one thing- 'sex' was something boring adults did). Anyway, at some later point I clocked that Nikki was 'masturbating' and had an idea what that meant. But with a MAGAZINE? I had been told how the female body was constituted. I knew about 'mating' and what was supposed to go in where. That's where my knowledge ended. I'm not going to spell out what I innocently assumed Nikki was doing with that magazine, although I bet you can guess.

Later on in the song, Nikki did a lot of 'grinding'. No idea. Coffee?


What's the moral of this story? I can't help but think that my discovery that there was a thing called Holland was no more harrowing or ground-breaking than my niece's discovery that Robin Windsor has a husband; just another fact to store in the fact list. As for Prince's groundbreakingly filthy song, I'm kind of glad that my parents didn't sit me down and explain to an eleven year old the mechanics of female masturbation- they, and I, would have been embarrassed. If they had, I would have spent less time assuming that the song referred to someone sitting in a Holiday Inn, rolling up a Marie Claire, and risking all kinds of intimate paper cuts. But, you know, I realised that eventually.

I'm not a parent. But I remember being a child. There are things you get told, and things you find out for yourself. And it strikes me that when you're told stuff, the attitude with which you're told it is the important thing. It strikes me that when you find out stuff, it's stuff you'll understand one day, even if you don't at first.

It's not what we tell them, or when. It's how.