ENCYCLOPEDIA 1960s. Learning a vital lesson

Philip Larkin’s much quoted verse in his poem Annus mirabilis goes like this:

‘Sexual intercourse began
in nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
and the Beatles’ first LP.’

This discovery was not late for me but just in time. In 1963 I turned 15 on 25th September. My sexual education also involved Lady Chatterley’s lover and the Beatles.

In that year I was invited to spend a week at an Anglican seminary by the Bishop of Birmingham. I was a choirboy and server at St Wulstan’s church and I must have impressed the vicar with my intelligence (rather than my spirituality). Hence the invitation to stay for a week with the Bishop to see if I might be a potential priest. I was one of a small group and we were all allocated our own room for the week. Usually they were occupied by trainee priests but it was between terms and they must have been off, practicing good works in the Brum slums.

I cannot remember what we discussed. I was already beginning to doubt my faith but the priesthood might be a good career opportunity. After all, our own vicar lived in an enormous house (the Vicarage), drove a red Triumph sports car and disappeared after Sunday services to see his mistress in Bartley Green. I had never discussed theology with him but it just did not seem to be necessary for the job.

What I did discover was a copy of Lady Chatterley’s lover tucked at the back of a drawer in the room I was given at the seminary. I knew about the book, it had been prosecuted in Court, so I spent my evenings reading it. I thought it odd that a priest would have such a dangerous book but I decided that you must know about sin if you want to pontificate about morals.

Chatterley JPG A well-thumbed copy.

Lady Chatterley’s lover had been the subject of a famous trial in 1960 when 35 literary and academic illuminati, including the Bishop of Woolwich, were called to justify its literary merit. Finally, the publishers were declared ‘not guilty’ of obscenity and tens of thousands of copies rolled off the press. W. H. Smith was very pleased.

For virtually everybody (and not just 14-year old choir boys) this was the first time they would have read about sex presented in such an explicit way. It is commonplace now but the murky, prurient world of the nineteen-fifties was suddenly lit up with sensual descriptions of foreplay, penetration and orgasm, peppered with four letter words that you had never seen before in print. It also described how making love could be enjoyed sensitively with emotions that might swing between earthy and almost spiritual.

D. H. Lawrence originally published his novel in Italy in 1928. It took 32 years before it was published legally in Britain. Some say it triggered the ‘permissive society’. It was certainly followed by an avalanche of books, plays, magazines, art that would have been considered obscene previously. Fifty years later, we have pornography in many formats which is not even considered obscene under the legislation.

Before I was 13 years old, no-one had talked to me about sex, at least, not an adult. As eleven-year-olds, a group of us played a ‘Dare’ game which might involve kissing and cuddling in a dark cupboard. But this was just curiosity and none of us knew what it all might mean.

But it wasn’t long before I started having some odd feelings and strange thoughts. I matured slightly earlier than some of my friends, a fact easily checked because of the regular communal showers we had at my boys’ school. Some of us grew hair on our bodies and pondered the need for Y-fronts or even a jock-strap to contain our enlarged equipment. I do not remember discussing it with my friends or getting any advice about what it might mean. We had to handle the problem ourselves.

The changes were substantial. Hormonal chaos is terrible to watch in young men; we do not have a clue what is happening to us. At least young women have a sort of calendar dictated by their monthly periods. But young men are more like an active volcano that might go off at any time. Emotionally, you have inexplicable mood swings which can lift you higher but are more likely to drop you into despair. You have curious thoughts about women but, without experience, they remain unfocussed. You might have some very odd dreams and wake up with damp sheets. This is when some young men start excelling at sport; I believe because it helps to concentrate their minds and avoid chaotic thoughts. Others might become artistic and creative. I believe I was marginally the latter but I still had to pretend I was interested in sport.

When we were about 13 we were given ‘the talk’ by a biology teacher who red-facedly discussed rabbits. He finished in a very short time, left the room quickly and left us bemused. There was nothing about the actual mechanics of sex, nothing about contraception or relationships. I recall sitting at dinner (lunch) with a group of classmates discussing ‘johnnies’. A boy brought one in which he said was borrowed from his parents’ bedside drawer. It was passed around but remained in its sealed packet because it had to be returned. We had no idea what was inside it or how it was used.

Johnnies JPG

A johnny (condom) 1960s. Cost three shillings and ninepence for a packet of three, about the price of 20 cigarettes of a cheaper brand. Only available under the counter at chemists or from barber shops where they would ask: ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’ Chemists might refuse to sell them to you if they thought you were not married.

Our adolescent male bodies were also changing, but in a way I would describe as more like a werewolf at full moon rather than a butterfly emerging. Hair starting sprouting all over; legs, arms, face. Not a sleek coat but usually a downy layer we referred to as ‘bum fluff’. Hair grew on our faces and we had to learn to shave, if only occasionally. I wanted a moustache to demonstrate my adulthood but my upper lip produced only a thin scattering of light-coloured bristles. I considered dyeing them but early efforts were fruitless.[1]

We stank. Our sweat was obnoxious, becoming more copious, trapped in our new axillary and pubic hair where it festered. Instead of having a weekly bath whether you needed one or not, regular showers became a necessity. Advertisements on television at the time threatened pariah status because of ‘BO’ or ‘body odour’. I used ‘Lifebuoy’ soap but still could not remove the stench caused by testosterone. Men’s fragrances were just becoming popular so you could try covering up the smell with Old Spice, Hai Karate or Brut.

Having grown up with two sisters I had become used to clouds of scent and snowfalls of powder; I knew that girls smelled differently. But I now noticed how the girls I met were so wonderfully fragrant, with soft complexions and alluring looks. How I so wanted to get close to them and revel in that fragrance but I felt like Pip in Great Expectations approaching Estella in his crumpled clothes and rough boots. The 1946 monochrome version by David Lean.

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1960s macho man complete with eyepatch – look at the way he holds that bottle of Brut. Or a modern girl, independent but still pink and soft.

Sweat blocked our pores, feeding bacteria which turned our faces into a moonscape of acne. Our smooth baby faces became pock-marked, scarred by razors, reddened by inflammation and roughened by facial hair. This was all supposed be due to the body preparing itself for procreation. But why did these changes make the body so unattractive at the very time that the brain was becoming keen on the idea.

My voice also broke, as if dropped from a height. The sweet mezzo-soprano I developed as a choirboy, my angelic tones rendering ‘All things bright and beautiful’ in a heavenly chorus, disintegrated into rubble. I croaked, my voice would change from tenor to baritone within a single sentence. Apart from the embarrassment, I lost a source of income.

As a choirboy at St Wulstan’s, I received a small but welcome pittance for turning up to church services early on Sunday mornings, putting on a worn out blue cassock, frilly collar and an enveloping white surplice. The real financial loss was because I could no longer sing at weddings. We would be paid 2/6d (half-a-crown, or 12.5 new pence). Enough for two cinema tickets at the Pavilion in Stirchley or the Oak in Selly Oak.

It would have been Dad’s job to tell me about sex. Mom would do the explaining to my sisters. His approach was to ask me if there was anything I needed to know about, you know, babies and such. He was relieved when I said that he did not need to. He said that I probably already knew more about it than he did and could teach him a thing or two. From a scientific point of view, that is.

It is possible that I did know more about the mechanics of sex than he did, even at the age of 15. I had discovered a book in my parents’ bedroom which had been hidden away at the back of a cupboard. I was rummaging about trying to find out where they had hidden our Christmas presents. Instead, I found an encyclopedia of sex, with detailed drawings, descriptions of sexual responses and lengthy accounts of sexual activity.

I later realised that it was ahead of its time, referring to recent controversial sex research. I learned a whole new vocabulary including words like masturbation, erogenous zone, and many others. I was keen to try out my new knowledge but the opportunity would take a long time to arise. The book told me nothing about relationships and assumed that sex only occurred in marriage. Neither did it mention homosexuality which was illegal at the time and considered a perversion.

I was reading a lot when I was a teenager, particularly about science. So, this became another branch of technical knowledge for me. With my newly acquired spectacles and having passed the 11 plus exam, I became known as ‘The Professor’ among the gang in Muntz Park. I was happy to show my erudition on a range of subjects, and they were fascinated to hear about them.

One day, one of my friends came to me with his new girlfriend. They had decided that they were meant for each other but at 15 and 16 they were unable to marry. They wanted serious advice about sex, not just curiosity. It is typical of the time that these maturing young adults had nowhere else to go for advice. Schools, church, parents would all have dismissed them and told them to wait until they were married when it would all make sense somehow.

I regaled them with the whole story, as I knew it, from anatomy to climax. It was quite matter of fact. A couple of weeks later they came back, starry-eyed and very much in love, and thanked me. I believe they did eventually get married.

The only way you could learn more was by experience. It may have been 1966 in swinging London but it was still 1956 in Birmingham. The moral message was that sex before marriage was simply wrong. Sexual experience was difficult to come by and, if achieved, required great secrecy. With no privacy or access to contraception, the fear of pregnancy meant intense groping between couples in hidden corners in parks and alleys. The continuous red brick terraces of Selly Oak had no access to the rear except through ‘tunnels’ at intervals in the row. These were narrow but dark and dry and probably accounted for a very high proportion of conceptions before marriage in Birmingham.

By the time I was 18 I had received all the theoretical sex education that was available. Was I ready to make practical use of it?

[1] By the time I was 16 years old I managed to grow ‘sideboards’ (sideburns), only just avoiding the ban on facial hair at school. This prompted a comment from the physics master: ‘Are we going into the furniture business then, Perry?’