Youth and Young Manhood
I am in the schoolyard. It’s the late 70s, I am 7 or 8. For a few months or so, I have been bullied. This is a perennial issue that will rear its head over the next 6 or 7 years, not least because I am an underdeveloped scrawny boy with an overdeveloped ability to say inappropriate things to overdeveloped boys. I will search for various solutions – I will try to make friends with the bullies, I will fight back, I will retreat into myself, I will not engage. The final solution works. Here, I am a few weeks into my first solution. I am class clown. I do impressions. My Ian Paisley (which mainly consists of me shouting “no, no, no” in a high-pitched attempt at a Northern Irish accent) has gone down wonders.
Today, I unveil my new impression. Waggling an imaginary cigar, I leer at the crowd. “Now then, Now then, Boys and Girls, who wants to sit on Uncle Jimmy’s lap?”
The crowd goes wild. The simple things.
Recently, when the “Children’s Entertainer” Rolf Harris was convicted for various offences, social media and the occasional columnist erupted in an indulging of narcissism to the utmost degree. Just like Saville before, they proclaimed, the lurid string of accusations and revealed inner life of such a deeply beloved figure had “robbed us of our childhood innocence”. There was a pause, when I read this, and then, I admit, I came right back at people. To see other’s abuse through the lens of your tv childhood wasn’t just wrong, it was sickeningly wrong, solipsism on a grand scale. It isn’t about your childhood. It is about the childhood of the victims.
But then, I got to thinking some more, and two thought patterns emerged in me. The first was how we were, in essence, lying to ourselves. I checked with my friends of the same age. Pretty much unanimously, they agreed. Neither Rolf nor Jimmy were beloved. They weren’t saying so to retrospectively cleanse themselves of association with tarnished figures, but their reaction was pretty similar to mine. These were gatekeepers, the people we watched on TV while waiting for the interesting stuff to come on, the wish being made true, the Fred Quimby cartoon. They were the type of adults that adults think children like, and that kids learn to put up with.
Following on from that was the realisation, actually, that these people had a point. Their vision of their childhood innocence was being exploded, in front of their eyes. But it was a false vision, constructed from nostalgia TV and wallowing in the past. At some point, around the mid 90s, the combination of a generation that wanted – more than any before – to cling on to its childhood with a wealth of tv channels looking for filler had resulted in them coming back and marketing your youth to you. A saccharine version. All was spacehoppers and Raleigh choppers. Even the supposedly gritty stuff, the Life on Mars, the Ashes to Ashes, was riven to the very core with nostalgic yearning, for a world lost.
Lost, somewhere deep in this fug of slushy roseate nostalgia, the true history of that period, the late 70s, the early 80s, had been buried, defanged, the sharp edges shaved off. And now, this stuff had come back to haunt the generation that couldn’t grow up, the men-boys who clung to Star Wars toys in their 40s, the girls who still squealed at Grease (and as that in itself was a stroll down nostalgia lane, the ironies abound).
I am 12, and in Comprehensive School. I am standing, with a couple of my friends, at the edge of the playing fields, desperately trying to avoid any physical exercise. A dozen or so yards away, the netball team is playing. They are all 12, 13, the school is split on two sites, and we move to the second school at age 14.
The PE teacher approaches us. He is also the headmaster. In his late 40s. Wild, slightly crazed hair. He stands by us for a while then he nods at the girls playing netball.
“See their captain, boys?” he says, grinning “I call her Bob”
He puts his hands to his chest and makes the universal oafish gesture for breasts, describing an arc with his hands out from his chest in an exaggerated manner.
“Because when she plays, she bobs”
The point nobody ever seems to recognise, when they wallow in talk of childhood innocence, is that kids, on a certain level, always knew that there were dark things out there in the world, that there were bad adults who would hurt them. It wasn’t just about parental warnings, or “Stranger Danger” adverts on the tv. There were adults you had a feeling about and avoided, there were teachers who would say odd things, or ones that would pander to the girls and take pleasure in always always being surrounded by a bevy of them. There was your own incipient sexuality, and the schoolyard interpretation of what that meant.
And then there was just the general societal air. I had – despite the occasional flurries of bullying – a pretty idyllic childhood. Nobody died, summers lasted a long time, I discovered literature, I went on adventures in the countryside around my home, I had a gang of fellow urchins who I indulged in petty crime with, all the markers of a pretty Tom-Sawyer-esque childhood, really.
And yet, if you ask me my overwhelming impressions of that time, two words would come to the fore. The first would be “concrete”. Everywhere seemed concrete at the time. Faded, crumbling concrete. And the second would be “grubby”.
I’m about 13/14 and I have got hold of a pornographic magazine. They were everywhere at the time. Every newsagent you walked into. WH Smiths. Everyone’s elder brother had a stash. And you would find them randomly. In playgrounds. In hedgerows. In the park. Just scattered. I have no idea where this one came from, but I’m looking at it, half amazed and half aghast.
As I leaf through, I have a confused sense of arousal and fear at the sight of all these adult bodies. All that hair. Big 80s hair, by this point. Then I come across a spread of a girl, late teens, in pigtails and school uniform. This feels comforting, this feels safe. This is what I am surrounded by, every day.
Its only in my early 20s, when my proto-feminist revulsion has combined with aesthetic distaste at the glassy eyes and the limbs splayed in uncomfortable positions, that I stop and think “hang on, what was a schoolgirl doing in a magazine for adult men?”
I read young feminists today, and one of the things they talk about is a ‘rape culture’. There has been a mountain of stuff around that term in the past few years, not least due to certain events in the States, awful shit that you can’t even begin to comprehend. And reading them, I don’t want to downplay what they are saying at all. I don’t, and won’t, belittle their perceptions of abuse and societal misogyny with sneers and jeers. The reports I have read are too widespread for me to think otherwise, too consistent with stuff I see and read, exchanges I view online and off, to ignore with a blase shrug.
The above said, the culture of when I passed through puberty was a rape culture. Far more than today.
My list of snapshots, of memories, from an untroubled childhood, could be longer, much longer. They could take in the schoolyard jokes about abuse and rape; the stand-up comics who bawled misogyny from the stage; the time I visited London at 15 and, walking back through Soho, I passed a doorway and a man in his 50s beckoned me in, obvious then as now as to his intent; the people you heard of with family members who did dodgy things; the teachers you heard of who did something wrong; the whispers behind hands and the guffaws behind beer glasses; It was there, it was all there, and it was hiding, like Saville, in plain sight.
And in our quest to remember the happy things of our youth, we’ve forgotten how truly awful much of media was, then. We’ve forgotten how despicable mainstream attitudes were. We’ve forgotten all the jailbait jokes, and the off-colour “men’s comics” who would tell rape jokes and market it as “Blue” material. Adult material. As though this was somehow part of a rite of passage, as though this was somehow normal. The period 74 to 83 was a grubby leer of a decade, and no amount of scrubbing it clean with memories of Spacedust and Battle of the Planets will get us away from that fact.