A lovely naturist lady, whose posts include photographs of many nudes taken in natural, naturist/nudist surroundings, seems puzzled that pictures like those she provides appear on ‘pornographic’ websites and blogs.
Why is the naked female body per se, then, however mundane its activities and however balanced and naturist in intent, perceivable as a pornographic image?
I’ve tried to expand this debate for a very long time, but it’s difficult. Even what I am writing here will no doubt prove of discouraging length. Even given patience, I suspect that there are men and women who are afraid of whatever ‘truth’ might be found out there, and there are those who are desperate to cling to largely self-serving prejudices.
My oft-repeated axiom is: “There are no more dangerous lies than the lies we tell ourselves”. Of every belief and rationale I have, I must ask the question, over and over again; is this what I truly believe on the basis of experience, evidence and understanding, or is this what I want to believe because it somehow suits my agenda? It is a hard question, but unless it is honestly asked anything which emerges as a belief or rationale is suspect.
I’ve quoted examples before. The dieter who tells him/herself that ‘one more biscuit won’t harm’, the alcoholic who says the same of ‘one more drink’, the burglar who genuinely convinces himself that his actions don’t matter ‘because they (the victims) are insured’, the litterer who tips his garbage out of the car window ‘because someone else will clear it up’.
So anything I write here has been tested and will be re-tested against the possibility that I am writing something because I wish to believe it is true, because I wish to be comfortable with it.
The answer to my main question, about the naked body being perceived by some as having pornographic utility, begins, I suspect, with the fact that we – men and women – screw each other up. I can only cover a fraction of that truth here.
For one thing we hold to that concept – ‘men and women’ – as if we are essentially our biological attributes alone and as if in some fundamental way all of one gender is the same as all the rest. A huge test of that concept has been homosexuality, and it has taken us at least a couple of thousand years (almost certainly more) to begin to accept in some societies that there are at least six classifications of male and female; male hetero, female hetero, male homo and female homo, male bi-sexual and female bi-sexual.
The desperation to cling to the single standard of male and female, standardly heterosexual, is something that renders many incapable of accepting one or more of those other standards. It does not matter what evidence is produced. It does not matter how self-evident the biological truths, there are those who consider non-hetero relationships ‘icky’ and – if their argument extends beyond that – to define those relationships in terms of ancient and discredited texts as ‘sinful’ or ‘evil’.
Nature in fact produces, from time, members of a seventh category, consisting of human beings whose bodies are neither exclusively male nor exclusively female, whose bodies combine elements of both. They go largely un-talked about, they are anomalies and freaks. Yet who says so? And who has the right to say so? In terms of numbers, in terms of their rarity, perhaps there is some justification for the anomalous view, yet if these individuals can find contentment within their ‘different’ bodies, regardless of whether they conform to a heterosexual norm, who are we to question what they do?
Yet the standard reaction in such cases is the advocacy of surgery. If something falls outside our definition of normal, let us use the scalpel to ‘normalise’ it. And if heterosexuality is our exclusive perception of the normal, let us use medication and pseudo psychology to ‘normalise’ those who don’t share our perception. It is cruel, it is sad, and it is stupid.
Seven or eight categories in, now, and we’re still left with certain concepts of normality. Yet I suspect that they are wrong.
Whether by nature or nurture, differences occur between different people within each of those categories. Physically and mentally there are, probably within all of those categories, those who might be considered macho or ‘butch’ and those who might be considered ultra-feminine and fey.
Pretty much every day I encounter men in the streets of my town who – in terms of appearance – could not be perceived as anything but men. They have – often – shaven, bullet heads, have frequently shallow foreheads, are as broad at the shoulders as they are tall, and radiate a kind of aggressive machismo. A great many of them, one suspects, are readers of our ‘Sun’ newspaper with its topless page 3 girls, are purchasers of girlie magazines, walk thuggish-looking pit bull terriers and would love to see a return to cock-fighting and bear-baiting. They are often scary people.
They define themselves as – and are considered by very many women to be – men. Archetypal, ideal men in many instances, capable of producing the requisite number of babies, never shedding tears in public (and often never in private) and capable of ‘defending’ their women if actually or imaginedly insulted by some stranger. Indeed in my daily life I am surrounded by teenage boys whose own definition of a man is someone who can fuck a female and physically fight an opponent, not realising that this is essentially the same definition as a pit bull dog.
Now, what baldness I have is quite naturally arrived at. I have never been a strapping, muscular chap and, in truth, if someone insulted my partner and had any sense of physical strength about him I would have to try to negotiate my way out of it. That’s something that is not easy to admit. It’s not ‘manly’. Yet I suspect it is more the norm than the bullet-headed Neanderthal.
In my own perception I am a ‘man’ on a different part of the spectrum of masculinity. Is it, though, a spectrum of masculinity or more a spectrum of humanity? Are there not female equivalents to the Neanderthals, female equivalents to myself? Is it not that each human brain contains elements, in-born or inculcated, which are not uniquely masculine or feminine but which retain a mixture of both?
Age old precepts have, I think, done us unimaginable harm. The idea that we were ‘made in the image of God’ seems to me to elevate us – flatteringly – far above the simple animals we in many respects are.
Seeing these putatively Neanderthal males, however, does not leave me wishing that I could be like them. Seeing them I see no less clearly than in myself the fears and insecurities which have shaped and continue to shape them. The only significant difference is that they would not so readily admit to being afraid. In a physical fight most of them would defeat me, but in a mental or intellectual struggle they would lose. Most of them know it as well as I do, and for that they are inclined to hate me.
But if there is only the one concept, heterosexual man, and I am not like them, am I a man? Some of them, and many of their girlfriends, would argue I am not.
At base, then, I am merely a human being, a human being with male genitalia, a human being with a particular reproductive role, a human being whose first choice of sexual partner would always be female and whose wiring or programming means that I find the female and the female form attractive.
I am also a male human being who finds particular things significantly awesome. These include insects, seen from up close, flowers, snakes, butterflies, sunsets, storms, thunder, lightning, birds, the paintings of Turner, Vigee-Lebrun, David, Delacroix, Degas and others, small mammals, middle size mammals, enormous mammals. I cannot be near to one of my cats without petting it, nor can I resist touching my wife, I cannot be near a tiger, an elephant, a meerkat, a dolphin, an orchid or a rose without wanting to touch it, to stroke it, to hold it.
Exactly what that drive is – to hold, to touch – I can’t say I know. I just know it is there. I know it has something to do with who I am and what I am, and that it is somehow about being in touch with the world in which I live and with the beauty by which I am surrounded.
I do know that I am not a ‘Disney’ anthropomorphist. When I visit my ‘local’ park and the squirrels clamber onto my patient knees or along my arms to take peanuts from me, or when the heron tilts his head and advances towards me for the fish I’ve taken as a gift for him, I do not imagine that these creatures like or love me, or that they might come to, or that they even know me. I know how small their brains are, how limited their perceptions, so that I am to them no more than a tree which happens to carry their favourite provender and happens to be at the right place at the right time.
I know that I am attracted by the perceived softness of fur and feather, by the sculptural qualities of their bodies, the delicacy of their movements and – of course – by the relative enormity of their eyes which, if they were human, might indicate that they loved me. Because they are birds and squirrels it means nothing of the sort, but I know that there are parts of my brain that see enlarged pupils as a warming, engaging thing to which it must respond.
‘Every man is a potential rapist’. Have I correctly remembered the quote, or was it simply ‘Every man is a rapist’? I don’t remember, but either way it attests to a believed quality of ‘man’ as an entirety. I hope I have argued with some reason that such an entirety is fallacious. We are not all the same. We do not all inhabit the same part of the spectrum.
Now I must revisit earlier times, the times when I as an adolescent first began to learn about women and about sex.
I am and always have been an exceedingly lonely individual. I suspect there are a great many of us. I found myself attracted to girls long before I knew what the potential outcome of that attraction was and enjoyed the company of girls, and the shape and form and nature of girls, a long time before puberty struck me. I loved their shape, their voices, the gentlenesses the world respected in them but did not respect in boys.
Reaching adolescence, discovering that this thing I used to piss through had a mind and an appetite of its own, I discovered masturbation and I discovered something of intimacy. Because there was no alternative, and because such things are probably quite normal (or were then) I discovered intimacy in a pseudo-homosexual environment.
I don’t know if it began or if it was merely reinforced by a quasi-homosexual experience as a boy scout. A total newbie, on my first camp, I was tidying up in a tent which had had its sides tied up to leave the interior open to sun and breeze when a schoolmate and co-scout appeared in a blur of movement from another tent and hurried to bury himself among the baggage and sleeping bags of the tent wherein I stood. I was amazed at the fact that he was stark naked, and surprised to discover that he was so as the result of a strip-poker game which had occurred in the scout-master’s tent.
I didn’t even know enough, then, to think this something terrible, something reportable, something indicative of a possible evil in the scoutmaster, and the continuing conduct of the boys showed nothing whatever in it that they had been somehow oppressed. Being new and untried, I was not involved in any of their ‘games’, which were various. I was afraid to be involved only because I was shy, and shyness precluded me from ever attending a camp again.
Friends of mine at the time, however, did occasionally come to my home around that period, and by playing games of strip poker and ‘strip darts’ we learned – certainly I learned – of the arousal that could occur simply because you or someone in your company was rendered naked, rendered vulnerable with a vulnerability that was never misused. Our penises – objects of humour and shame to anyone else – were objects of fascination to us, I think, though my memory of these far gone times is not too sharp.
Here, however, perhaps we come close to a key to things. There was stimulation, of some sort, ‘simply because you or someone in your company was rendered naked, rendered vulnerable’.
As I have said, that vulnerability was never (in my presence) abused. What happened occurred as a result of the process of accepting that nakedness was a vulnerable state, a state you only shared with anyone you absolutely trusted (however foolishly) and that nakedness, per se, was sensual and sexual.
Nakedness was an unacceptable state in any other circumstances except perhaps – and rather confusingly – single sex showers.
There is a key, I think, to who we are, in the biblical acknowledgement that the first evidence of Adam and Eve having sinned was that they ‘knew they were naked’. Thus is nakedness – or it was in those days up to 60 years ago – associated with sin and wrong-doing. I do not remember all the reinforcements of this that I received as a child, but clearly remember three.
In the first we were resident in an apartment block in Germany in the early 1950s. My father was a soldier and part of the British Army of the Rhine – the de facto army of occupation of the British sector. I remember very sunny days, sunny gardens and a shaded underpass to the block which contained the garbage cans of perhaps half a dozen of the nearest apartments. Somehow I, and a number of other youngsters (I was at the most 8 years old) got into playing naked hide and seek. Discovered, we were separated and told it must not happen again because, somehow, it had been naughty.
In the second instance we were all staying at my paternal grandmother’s house and I walked into the downstairs living room/kitchen area to find my father bathing in a tin bath before the fire. My mother swiftly ushered me out with some remarks about my father’s need for privacy. I am not aware that I ever otherwise saw my father or mother’s naked bodies, certainly never saw their genitals, and I am aware that it would have been considered a source of embarrassment to them if I had done so. Indeed, my mother having passed away a couple of years ago and in her 80s, I have no recollection of ever having seen her breasts.
The third ‘key’ sexual experience occurred when I was perhaps 9 years old, maybe 10, and I rushed happily to greet my mother as she returned home only to be greeted coldly and with words something like “You are a grown boy, now; I don’t ever want to see that again.” I was wearing pyjama trousers of the kind fastened with a bow at the centre of the waist and, it seems, they were gaping, revealing my penis. It was then that I learned that my penis was something to be ashamed of.
Some half a century ago in my life, and I am sure more recently in others’ lives, I learned that my body was a source of shame to those who avowedly loved me, that it behaved in ways I was not sure how to control, that it was not a source of shame among peers of my own age and sex but that, indeed, its own and other bodily functions were a source of humour. I had learned, too, that nakedness was in itself sexual.
This was reinforced, when I reached a certain age, by the discovery of ‘pornography’. The definition of a pornographic image when I reached the age of 15 or 16 was of an image which showed genitalia or genital hair. A mere wisp of pubic hair was enough to send an image for retouching. The Victorian painters had colluded – at the same time the word pornography was invented – by showing only hairless and uncloven pudenda in their paintings, it seems to me, and the sort of magazine available to me at that age consisted exclusively of images of naked women with their pudenda and associated sexual adornments hidden. What was revealed was exclusively breasts and bottoms.
What happened between the female legs remained a mystery.
This definition of pornography remained in force for a very long time, and the strongest images I saw before I reached marriageable age consisted of a sheet of magazine covers from Sweden, shown to me by an Italian male nurse, which consisted entirely of images of rigid penises with their heads thrust into vulvas, and images supplied by a controversial WW2-based TV series and the movie ‘The Fox’ in which the pubic hair of actresses was visible on their otherwise naked bodies.
The female body remained largely a mystery beyond those images, yet in fact those images – over which I and millions, no doubt, of others, fostered our erections, were less revealing than those which now appear on websites and blogs which describe themselves as naturist.
The first time I discovered that labia existed, and that they came in two sizes, and the first time I discovered what a clitoris looked like, was when I took my first lover to bed and – because she was hugely hung up on the possibility of getting pregnant – when I first approached cunnilingus.
Now I can pretty much see them anytime I plug into one of my blogs.
I don’t have an issue with that. These are beautiful, wonderful, miraculous things, and they are brandished – if I can use that word, for they’re often extremely ‘up front’ in the images – by some pretty beautiful-looking, wonderful-looking, miraculous-looking individuals.
A memory arises, a link, perhaps, between the naturist natural and the perceived pornographic.
In the repressed magazines of my youth, the tit and arse photographs were generally of young women with attractive faces as well as attractive bodies. There was no sense that these photographs had been taken through keyholes, or with hidden cameras, or in any way secretly, and every certainty from the poses and the look in the eyes that they had been taken with the model’s consent. Moreover, if you were stupid enough to succumb to the idea, most of the photographs were accompanied by a brief text which indicated that the lady concerned might be interested even in you, the reader/viewer. They were always apparently between boyfriends.
The photographs, then, were ‘up front’, even if the diminutive miracles of the female anatomy were not, and they constituted an invitation to look and desire. The naturist photo is intended to say ‘I want you to look, I want you to see my beauty, I want you to be aware – as you cannot fail to be – of my sex, and I want you to look and be aware at the same time that I am not showing myself to you in order to be desired by you but in order to demonstrate what a wonderful clothes-free way of life I have.’
I’m not sure that works. At least, not for everybody.
Let’s take a reality check.
A little crude, this parallel, but bear with me. In the window of a restaurant, or above the counter in a fast food joint, is a picture of a meal which the creators want you to be able to evaluate. In a cookery book it may only be a photo of a meal which, given the appropriate time and talent, you yourself could create. But whether you look at it as testimony to what can be created and provided by the restaurant or the recipe, or whether you look at it as an object of desire, does not depend on the image. It depends on how you see the image, on the environment operating in your brain, on how hungry you are.
The image is not seen in the same way by the individual with money in his pocket and the freedom to choose when and how his appetite is met, as it is seen by the hungry man with empty pockets.
And where beautiful, shapely women are concerned, most of us are hungry men with empty pockets.
And we’re confused, at times. We’re screwed up.
I’ve reached that age where I know that unless I become a millionaire – money being something that will allow a lot of young women to set aside other prejudices – I am never, ever going to hold a beautiful young woman in my arms again. That saddens me, though not perhaps for the most obvious reason, since thrusting my member into some young vagina now seems quite as improper, inappropriate and undesirable to me as it is likely to seem to her.
It is, however, the case. Day after day, especially in my home city, I see beautiful girls and women, pretty girls and women, attractive girls and women, fully dressed or what – in these days of skin-tight, shape-accentuating clothing – passes for it. Frequently but not always they are females who are fully made-up, females who wear on their faces the chemical simulacra of arousal – the darkened lips, the enlarged eyes – and who waft scents designed to attract. Intended to target – whether to target the current boyfriend or a boyfriend of what they consider to be appropriate age and circumstance – any passing man is susceptible to these broadcast signals, but ‘any passing man’ knows perfectly well that he must not be seen to react.
‘Look at me,’ she says in her innocence, ‘but don’t.’
If you are lucky they will return a smile, but if you’re not their eyes will shoot you down or, worse, show alarm because they think you might be a danger.
Let me be clear. Rapists, abusers, sexual abusers – I’d have them all shot, just to save a little time. The idea of using power as a tool to obtain from someone something they would not choose to give you, is to me an obscenity of the worst order. Okay, I’d rather such were cured, if curing is possible. I’m not a violent man, not a hating man, but the weight of carrying the responsibility of the male abuser is and has long been a heavy one. I’m the man who, finding himself walking behind a woman alone at night, crosses over to the other side of the street, distances himself to try to ensure that he is seen as less of a threat. I’m the man who would run to her assistance, were danger ever to threaten. I am the man, indeed, who would risk his life, at the drop of a hat, to protect a vulnerable human being or who, if he failed, would never be able to live with himself.
So there you are, in the photograph, your breasts, your vagina, perhaps your very labia exposed, and you tell me that you are this way because you prefer a life without clothes. I’m with you. I would prefer to live without clothes myself and love being naked. Naturism per se is not really available to me. For one thing I live in a country with a climate that is uncomfortably cold at least half of the year. Then, most naturist resorts of which I’m aware do not welcome men when they arrive alone – it’s mostly couples only, and when it’s not it’s a place beyond my economic means or my ability to travel. My partner’s not in sympathy, you see. She has a lovely 60 or so year old body and a wonderful heart, but she has absorbed those same mores that others sought to instil in me when I was a child.
In the photograph you are there, fully exposed to my view, but you never will be in reality, nor – I suspect – would you want to be. And part of the reason you would not want to be is because there are still other things you do not understand.
There is this lie, of course, that sexual stimulation in a man is a dangerous thing. It is only a dangerous thing, in fact, in someone who is less than a man. But it exists as a belief, even forms a part of judicial opinion when justice opines that a man did something awful because ‘he could not help himself’. Vile, grossly misleading nonsense. Teach a boy the facts, teach a boy the truth, teach a boy to feel the pain of others as significantly as he feels the pain in himself, and he will not become such a man, even if such a dick-led, brainless moron otherwise exists.
I was once a card-carrying naturist, received a monthly newsletter, ventured to an otherwise closed swimming pool with my son to experience swimming, sauna-ing and otherwise simply being naked. I loved it. Practical considerations obstructed it in a short while and I’ve never found a place since.
In the newsletters I would frequently read those initial enquiries that began “but supposing I develop an erection…” The response from the ‘children of nature’ was always the same – first the reassurance that you would very soon pass that stage, if you didn’t do so immediately, and second that you could always jump into the pool and hide it until it subsided.
What troubled me, and troubles me, is that I never read that one should simply ignore it, smile and move on with one’s life. Is the erection itself more unnatural than simple nakedness? Is it anything more than an unsought response as natural as breathing or bleeding and, at its very worst, anything less than a compliment to whoever has aroused it?
Not my fault as a man that I can’t double over every few minutes to check that the labia of the women nearby are not just a little swollen, their clitorises not at all budding, their nipples just a little peaking. No-one advises women in such circumstances to hide in the swimming pool. But then women aren’t dangerous. The brain, soul and conscience of an aroused woman cannot be overridden by its sexual desires in the way, it is supposed, in general, that a man’s can be.
Never, ever a danger to women or children, the perception has been shaped that I am one because I am a man. Yet the truth is that the defence ‘I was driven beyond my capacity to restrain myself’ is not even appropriate to the Neanderthal. Even in him it is a lie, a fraud for which he deserves to die a lingering death.
The penis is an inflatable piece of meat with a few tubes in it and an urge to spread semen. It is not a brain, nor a soul, nor a conscience, and it cannot defeat brain, soul or conscience unless we pretend that it can for our own purposes. To be far enough gone, to be sufficiently intoxicated or otherwise overwhelmed to be unable to understand the word ‘no’ would require a physical state in which the abuser could not maintain a viable erection.
Among the Neanderthals, then, and among the liars and self-deceivers who think that all men fit a single category, rape is excusable and the perception of a naked female body an explicit stimulant. That will not change until we change our understanding of men and men’s understanding of women and, perhaps, their understanding of life itself.
Where then, are we left?
I’ve been brutally honest through all of this. I don’t propose to cease.
There is a difference between attractiveness and beauty. There is beauty in the butterfly, the cat, the squirrel, the tiger, the flower, the nonagenarian and the child. None of that beauty promotes – in a normal human being – sexual arousal. Sexual arousal occurs in those who remain capable of it when they are confronted by something or someone which fits a pattern of desire created for the propagation and the maintenance of the species.
What one finds sexually attractive, another does not, though the determinants of sexual attraction have a dominant model which changes over time and to which most actresses, porn stars and others who make their living from attraction tend to conform. 100 years ago they looked different to today. 100 years from now they may look different again.
I look, then, at the photos from the mainly naturist-oriented blogs and the ‘beauty’ oriented blogs and what do I see? Much the same. Predominantly young (of child-bearing age) females, most of them happily conscious of their sex, many of them happily displaying the organs of their sex. Their breasts and buttocks range from the infinitesimal to the rather enormous, their skin from the smooth and supple to the rippled and wrinkled. All are beautiful to me, if not all are attractive to me.
But they also display their faces, their lips, their eyes…
Sexual fantasy figures exist in my imagination only when I can be bothered to create them. They are total fictions, unrelated to any living human being, because to fantasize about an existing human being without their express permission would be, to me, offensive, demeaning and disrespectful.
I enjoy sex, when it occurs, and could enjoy more, but looking at these images I am not aroused, nor tempted to slink off into some private space and jack-off over the physical attributes of strangers. As a teenager I might have – I hope I’ve been clear on that – but I’m not a teenager anymore, I am a man who loves.
And it is the faces, in the main, which reach me, which touch me. I see your beauty, your profound attractiveness, even at times the organs of your sex displayed, and I hunger not to fuck you but to know you; to see you smile, to cause you to smile, to listen to your voice, to have the privilege of telling you how beautiful you seem to me, to hear what is happening inside that greatest miracle of you which is your mind.
The faces attract, even when the bodies alone do not. Because you are people. You are part of the complexity to which I belong. You laugh, you cry, you smile, you frown, you depend and have dependent upon you, you organise, theorise, you reach out a thousand times a day to others that you know in the endless web of mind engaging mind, soul engaging soul.
Oh I would, if could, kiss those other lips, touch and stroke those intimate parts, just as I would do with the things I earlier listed, from butterflies to dolphins, but it would be with the same reverence, the same profound respect, the same amazement at the reality of your existence, at the miracle of your being.
But these things I cannot do. You will stand revealed before me in a picture, but you will never gladly stand before me in the same way in real life.
I am a man. I do not fit any simple category. Place me in any simple category and you will never, ever know me. I shall remain alone. You will never, ever know how truly beautiful I see you to be.
Sad, is it not?
In a world which is endlessly hypocritical about sex it is great to encounter a writer who writes out of the genuine male love and admiration of women which women themselves seem often not to understand.
There are certain feelings which are hard to express, especially when one suspects that the person you are expressing them to may never have shared anything like that feeling. One tries. The moment one first sees a real, living tiger, the gold, the black, the white, the dainty white spots on the back of its ears, its glorious, beautiful, dangerous eyes, its sinuous, elegant, energy-packed beauty. The moment one first sees a hummingbird, its impossible slenderness, its impossible stasis in mid-air. The moment a baby, new and all unknowing, wraps its tiny fingers instinctively around one of your own and earns unasked and forever your desire to love and protect it.
It is such feelings which, in some of us, form our response to women. The element of desire is there, but it is not predatory. It is informed by awe and admiration. And whilst sex itself may sometimes be the wonderful affirmation of those feelings it is not exclusively so. It is much, much more. Julius Addlesee, thank the Stars, is one who knows it:
The Sweetest Thing, by Julius Addlesee
The Sweetest Thing contains stories by a gentle gentleman who knows and loves women. I have known the writer and his work for a good many years and have frequently urged him to take his sweet and sexy stories to a wider public. At long last he has done just that and I, for one, am very glad of it. Even when most explicit, Julius Addlesee’s description is gentle, kind, fun and loving, the words of a man who cherishes that which is female. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.
I return, perhaps wearier than when I left.
I became suicidal around the age of ten, as I have said. My mother’s disposal of my father because – he avers – he could not earn enough to please her, required me to obtain his signature to a document that would formalise the end of their relationship, the end of a relationship I did not want to end.
Lest others should think I too easily accept that my mother made this choice, rather than my father, I can point accurately to the fact that she cast aside no small number of subsequent suitors for similar reasons. In particular she met a man called Dennis, one of the loveliest human beings I ever met and whom we knew for no little time. Just thinking about him for a moment tugs the corners of my mouth towards a smile. She quit him, she said, because he wasn’t ‘ambitious’ enough.
Many years later, after the death of the wife he’d met after breaking up with mum, we visited him at home. He was dying at the time, though I don’t think we knew it, and he was exactly the same man I remembered. Only now, however it had been come by, he lived in a ‘lovely house’, had his own car and all those other things that my mother truly valued. One could see in her eyes and in her face how bitterly she repented of having ‘let him go’.
As to my dad? I loved my dad. I still do, though he’s dead now. I still ache inside with the awareness of his absence, with the awareness of the life we could have shared and never did. I feel my daughter’s absence in the same way. They are part of the same pain, part of the same void, the same longing for what cannot be.
The God Squad promise we will be reunited. I do not believe it.
Around ten/eleven years old I was a gangling, shy, nervous, bespectacled child, afraid of the dark, wetting the bed. I remember very little from before that time, mere flashes in the darkness.
Perhaps I’ve said it already – these spontaneous chapters are an odd way to write a biography, I guess – and I apologise if I repeat myself, but my mother told me she had ‘sent my father away because he did not love me enough’. Me, that is. His first-born.
To that she added, as I’m sure I’ve said, that I came into the world after the first occasion that alcohol lowered his inhibitions enough for him to engage in sex with her.
My father, she said, did not love me. Whilst she told me that she loved me herself I never really felt that she did, only came after a long time to the realisation that she loved me as well as she was able to. It was a very long time though.
And if my own father did not love me, so much did not love me that he was prepared to leave his wife and son behind in order to leave me, and if my own mother never loved me without condition, why should it surprise me that my prayers to God went unanswered?
The answer was simple. I was unlovable. By anyone. By anything.
I learned that the closest resemblance to love was something that had to be earned. I had already discovered that my mother’s love could be lost – my father had lost it. If she could send him away then, surely, she could do the same to me? And in truth she did once tell me that she had had the opportunity to ‘send me away’ too, that it had been recommended that I be placed in care so that her marriage might survive.
I doubt, now, that that reflected any more than an idea she might once have had, but passing thoughts, even brief conjectures drawn from a diet of Coronation Street, could and did gain weight with her when she was in that frame of mind. Or maybe it was true, and if it was I rather wish she had sent me into care. I wished it when she told me and wish it still.
Love, then, had to be earned. How was that to happen? Comics, movies and stories – including the great ‘Christian’ story – told me that love was earned by sacrifice. We remembered Christ for giving his life, we remembered our war dead for giving theirs, I wept for Kipling’s Gunga Din and Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’ dog, whose death was brought about by sacrifice.
My father was leaving us, leaving me, my mother and my younger brother. If I wasn’t there to leave, perhaps he would come back to them, perhaps they would be together again as a family, united in whatever grief they felt, forgiving each other. A good enough reason to die, I thought.
The attempt obviously failed.
If being unloved felt a burden, it was little less so than being unliked. Twice in my life I have had a friend – one my late daughter and one a lady who will be reading this. That’s as close as I get.
I had something like a friend at Beech Grove. I don’t remember much of our interaction, but I will never forget how it began.
The front door gave immediate access to a ‘living kitchen’ and faced another door which would lead to our ‘best room’ (the room one never really went into but which was intended for receiving guests). My mother and father were standing in the space between the two and I nearest the front door, so it was I who responded to the knock.
On the doorstep was a young man of a similar age to myself, wearing almost knee-length shorts and, if my memory serves, a flat cap. I can’t remember his facial expression, though I feel it was non-committal, the look of someone on an errand who thinks they may be turned away.
“I’m Victor,” he announced; “Arta cummin arter laike?”
Bewildered I turned to my mother, said something about a boy and his making reference, apparently, to a ‘lake’. She and my father smiled, being of Yorkshire stock and I was informed that he was inviting me out to play. “Arta”, it transpired, was a contraction of ‘Art thou’, “cummin” needs no translation, “arter” his contraction of ‘out to’ and “laike” a genuine Yorkshire alternative to the word play. Shortly afterwards we were “laikin’ art” together.
I knew Victor for some time but only a single memory sticks out. We were ‘laikin” on a bomb-site which was not a bomb-site other than in name but an empty plot remaining from civil demolition. Under foot was the gravelly detritus of the operation and, standing at a distance from each other, we began picking up small stones, taking turns to throw them at each other. They were not thrown with force or with intent to cause pain, merely a kind of exercise in marksmanship practised against our gladly volunteering bodies. That was, at least, until Victor picked up a large fragment of red chimney-pot and threw that instead, splitting my head open.
I don’t think that terminated our friendship, but I really don’t recall.
Victor went to the same school as I, but he had all the advantages. He wasn’t particularly bright, was of small-to-average build, patently poor and local from birth. I was tall, bespectacled, intelligent and not able or wise enough to hide it, had a very wide vocabulary and spoke with the army accent my father, who had aspired to be an officer, had encouraged.
By definition of the tribe I joined my speech was ‘posh’, and that inevitably meant – to them – that I came from money. It wasn’t true, of course. But to that difference was added my height, on account of which I already stooped in order to make myself less visible, my National Health spectacles and a remarkable incapacity for anything related to sport or PE.
Cue the first day of entry into the school and some total stranger running past me towards the school doors and punching me in the abdomen as he went by. I doubled up in agony, but the physical pain was nothing in comparison to the unhappy bewilderment I felt that anyone would choose to inflict such a blow for no reason and upon someone they did not know in the slightest.
It happened again not long afterwards, although on this occasion I was on what felt like the long walk home. It was a downhill walk between two stone walls. Invisible behind one lay a stretch of ‘Private Property’ whilst beyond the other a large area of ‘allotments’ (small tracts of land on which the allotment holders grew fruit and vegetables for their own use) stretched down to the main road.
The youth running by punched me in exactly the same way the other had. They may have been the same person, I really didn’t and don’t know. He continued on his way and, in pain and misery, I did the same.
The path we had followed led to a junction, the main road passing up by the allotments and down towards the town, a sweetshop on the near corner, and the road up to Beech Grove stretching uphill opposite. Crossing the road I saw the youth who had hit me enter into another sweetshop on one of the many streets that ran off the uphill road and I progressed up the hill to home, leaving him behind.
It is odd, when I think of it, for the roads involved seemed too long then to allow such a time scale, yet the fact is that I got home, was interrogated by my mother as to why I was in such misery and then dragged by her down to the corner sweetshop before the other child had concluded his business there.
In the shop she demanded of me if this was the boy who had punched me and I answered, honestly, that yes, it was. She then demanded that I hit him.
I was aware of the shopkeeper as merely an onlooker, of the frightened child I faced and of the fury of my mother – not that he had punched me but that I had a) cried as a result and b) had done nothing in retribution. I was aware that my mother by my side tilted the balance of power steeply in my direction and I knew that it was unfair. The boy’s offence was to inflict pain on a stranger. I was being told I must reciprocate.
I don’t entirely recall what happened, but I know that I did not hit him, that I couldn’t. I know that I was bewildered by this willingness of others to inflict pain on strangers – she knew the boy no more than I did – and I know that she excoriated me for my cowardice.
She was wrong, I was right, but it was only one of many similar hurts.
“Big boys,” she clearly believed, “don’t cry.”
Atop this particular rise I stumble and fall down the slope in a tumble of memories newly or freshly awoken.
“Your dad’s gone, Richard. It’s up to you to be the man of the house now.” Freely translated that means, “Your dad’s gone, Richard. It’s up to you to carry whatever adult responsibilities I decide appropriate to inflict upon you whilst at the same time I will continue to treat you entirely as a child when you do anything that I don’t like.”
There is an addition to my height, spectacles, manner of speech and so on that I think I have not yet mentioned. I was born with a form of club-feet. Around the age of 14 it would lead to my being hospitalised and treated surgically in order to prevent the condition worsening, but at 10/11 years old it was being treated with exercises I constantly forgot to do and two strips of leather fixed under my shoes to exert upward pressure beneath the arch. I was also regularly visiting a Child Guidance clinic because of my ‘anxiety disorder’ – an anxiety disorder for which my mother had first referred me to specialists when I was all of four years old.
In truth, I guess, she was the problem, whilst received wisdom about child development made it mine.
The orthopaedic issues gave me something, I think, to which I could attribute my clumsiness and lack of sporting ability. It could at least be seen to be a source of some of the unworthiness I felt and for which, in this instance, I couldn’t hold myself entirely to blame.
The so-called ‘metatarsal bars’ beneath my shoes, supervised exercises and visits to the Child Guidance department took me often out of school. This did not add to my popularity, nor did my consequent exclusion from most sports and PE activities. My successes in anything related to art, English and History also rather failed to go down well.
I must have been attending the Child Guidance clinic at the time I first tried to take my own life, unless there was a second attempt that I don’t now remember – and it’s possible, even though it seems unlikely. They key fact in the memory is that I was very popular with the Child Guidance folk. We were given a weekly mark for our presentation, our involvement in the games and tasks we were set, our manners, behaviour and so on, and mine were always 9 or 10 out of 10. One week, without explanation, my mark was 1.
As my mother fetched me away I expressed my bewilderment at this apparent diminution of regard, this punitive score. “That will be because you tried to kill yourself,” she told me, going on to say that not long before that time my attempt at suicide would have branded me a criminal (for the theft from the Crown of one of its subjects, I later discovered).
The attempt had not been discussed at the Guidance session and to this day I do not know if what happened occurred because of that suicide attempt. I do know that I was told it by her and believed it, that in trying to remove myself, in trying to sacrifice myself in order that I might both end my own desperate unhappiness and contribute to the restoration of the rest of the family I had done something selfish, wicked and criminal. I had not yet reached my 11th birthday.
My father was in the British Armed Forces, for a spell among the 17th – 21st Lancers and later in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers. Among both the ‘Death or Glory Boys’ (The 17/21st, famous for being part of the charge of the Light Brigade) and REME his labours somehow involved draughtsmanship and tanks. I’ve never made the connection.
He was too late for the charge of the Light Brigade, of course, and enlisted just a fraction too late – being too young – for World War 2. I fancy that he did not enter the forces until a year or two after the war had ended because by the time he was first posted to the British Army of Occupation in Germany the initial cornucopia of black marketeering had been stopped up. In one of my few contacts with him he did suggest that it was this which first rather pissed-off my mother, since he was not able to supply her with all the extras his and her predecessors in occupation had enjoyed. My mother, he was to allege – quietly, kindly and after many years of a successful second marriage – always had her eye upon what others possessed, was determined to be one of those Joneses with whom everybody else sought to keep up. It is not a perception that jars with my memory.
He was a handsome man and, by the time I met him, a sergeant. He liked dogs, as I do, drew and painted, loved photography and other creative endeavours, as I do. I loved him. In the sixty two years of my life I received one greetings card from my father, not counting anything that came from ‘Mum and Dad’ so long ago that I can’t remember, and that card arrived shortly after we first made real contact some thirty years after his departure. In terms of colour, message and design – in every way imaginable – it was precisely the card I would have chosen.
I was around ten years old when he left.
According to my mother she ‘sent him away’ because of the way he treated me. I was not, somehow, she said, the son he had wanted, the rumbustious, ‘normal’ boy my younger brother was. According to my father, he left after returning to a cold, empty home once too often whilst my mother was visiting a married man she had taken a fancy to and to whom she was constantly comparing my dad. Jim had a car and a nice house, a mouse of a wife and three daughters whom he raised – like Pip in Great Expectations – very much ‘by hand’. I never saw him as anything but a thug and a bully, but he was clearly in some particular way successful.
I never really questioned that we spent a lot of time at Jim’s house, but then I didn’t know that my father was coming home from work to our own and finding it empty.
Not seeing my father for long periods was something to which I was accustomed. He was a soldier, often posted away on tours of duty, was engaged in the ‘police actions’ in the Holy Land and in Cyprus. To the latter we went with him.
So I really saw my father perhaps five years out of the ten that he was officially part of my life.
A flame is flickering somewhere, I catch glimpses that are only glimpses of that past. I remember particular gifts – die-cast Dinky armoured vehicles, a fire engine with working hoses, a bazooka that fired ping-pong balls. I remember the bottle of coke and the bar of chocolate I would usually wake up to when mum and dad had spent the previous evening at the Sergeant’s Mess.
I remember an apartment in Germany, an apartment with a serving hatch. I seem to recall that the building formed a square with gardens in its centre, though that could be a mistake, but I do remember that you could get from the front of the building to the gardens by way of an underpass. It was shady there when the sun was out and the kids from the block collected there despite the smell of the garbage bins stored there.
I got into trouble there, though I don’t recall any serious consequences. I was found there, with a host of other children – probably between about 5 and 7 years of age – and we were all discovered naked. We were enjoying our skins, I know. I have no darker recollection of it and remember it, if anything, fondly.
I remember the barracks in Germany, a vast parade square full of tanks, tank transporters and bren-gun carriers, and I remember the last bugle call that would sound as the dark descended. I remember the parties, meeting St Nicholas, goody-bags of chocolate, nuts and fruit, and the day St Nick arrived in a sled that was really a much-decorated army Jeep, driven by my father.
England and civvy life would always pale in comparison.
My father decided to leave the army, ostensibly because of the difficulties he would face in developing his career since officer rank was unavailable to him. My mother, brother and I returned first to a house he had acquired, the only ‘through’ terrace house in a street of back-to-back cottages, set in an estate which, it transpired, was a byword for crime and criminality. I can’t say I noticed that much.
Our immediate next-door neighbours were an Irish immigrant family, comprising a very large mother, a father I cannot recall and three very well-grown sons. What they had for Sunday dinner, I was told, depended on the luck they’d had at the betting shop on Saturday, and not one of them could string three words together without an obscenity being one of them. I liked them.
Mother was not, I gather, best pleased at being dropped into this particular low-rent area.
It had its eccentricities. The only through house (having both a back and a front door) as I have mentioned, Number 3 Beech Grove did not have a bathroom. Eventually we had a gas-geyser water heater installed, along with a bath, in the front living kitchen. I can’t see it in my head, sadly, though I could position most of the furniture even if it is now invisible. The increasingly ubiquitous ‘telly’ was there, the inevitable arm chair and sofa adjusted to keep it in view.
The absence of a toilet in the house was its biggest bugbear. Beech Grove was a cul-de-sac, the tarmac street flanked on both sides by straight rows of flat fronted houses and closed off at the end by a brick wall surmounted with shards of glass embedded in cement. Walking straight up that street would bring one to the last house in the terrace and, just around the corner, a row of wooden- doored privvies. There were gaps between the bottom of the door and the ground, and knot-holes enough in the doors to make one fearful of someone watching, especially at night. Permanently in the shade of the gable ends of the terraces, the row of lavatories was always pitch-dark at night.
I hated the walk to the lavatory. One passed every doorway, every front window, and anyone and everyone who saw you therefore knew where you were going – a thing I found intensely embarrassing by that time. When it snowed the street became treacherous, when it rained the walk necessitated a drenching. When it was dark it was terrifying to the child I was.
A star shell bursts. I remember. It was from that house that my father departed. It was from that house that I went to the first school I remember going to. It was in that house that nightmares really began to invade my sleep.
The son of Adam that I believed myself then to be, though I could never understand why my Father in Heaven seemed to pay no heed to my prayers, I had learned that I was naked and had learned to be ashamed.
I know there was one occasion long before Beech Grove when, too young, too inexperienced even, and travelling too far, I crapped myself on the way home. A glancing, sideways-striking shiver in my shoulder tells me as clearly as any visual memory what my mother’s reaction was to that.
I remember being home alone at Beech Grove one evening and too terrified of the lonely darkness to walk up the street to the lavatory without knowing there was someone nearby and when my mother returned she saw a dark spot – a tiny spot – of urine on my grey pants which my fear-compressed bladder had not managed to retain. I do not remember what she said, but the eviscerating, contemptuous, despising tone makes me shudder a little even in recollection.
We were at Granny’s house – my father’s mother’s house – when I rushed forward one evening to greet my mother as she came home from Heaven-knows-where. My brother and I were in Pjs, the striped flannel pyjamas of the time which tied at the waist and had no ‘fly’. As I reached out to her, it seems, the pyjamas gaped.
“You’re too old for that, now. That’s disgusting. I don’t ever want to see that again.”
That may or may not be a verbatim quote, but it is near enough. I discovered there was a part of me to add to the functions in me of which I should be ashamed. Odd, now, that the flame flickers and I seem to think that my shame pre-dated this event. We were in Cyprus, which must have been before that, when my tonsils erupted and – the security situation being dangerous – I was transported with my mother in the back of an army ten-tonner and under armed guard to hospital to have the tonsils removed. The nurse stood me on the bed to undress me and my embarrassment was boundless.
In Cyprus, too, a bomb was thrown through our kitchen window. Deliberately or not, it was thrown when we were out, but it was an anti-personnel device which makes it kind of personal.
I was around ten years old, as I said, when my father walked out of Beech Grove for the last time. Having, as she subsequently said, ‘sent him away’, it seems a little odd now that she should also recall going to his mother to ask her to intervene and send him home. Allegedly Granny responded; “Well if he’s not welcome with you, he knows where he is welcome.”
It was around this time that I first recall having a bed-wetting problem. Eneuresis is the medical term, in English. The name scarcely matters. Sodden sheets mattered, even more especially if and when the bed was not your own, and more still if you were not the only occupant.
It would cause me problems at school, but perhaps I will save school for the next time, should there be one. It’s around this time, however, that I remember the nightmares. In one I was chased by a giant, blue-spotted white dog, in another I walked into a school lavatory and found nooses hanging everywhere. In one in particular I would find myself hanging from a cliff top by my finger tips in a howling gale, crying out for help to my father who stood some distance away and who did not hear me.
It’s around this time that my mother found us a ‘council flat’ and despatched me to visit my father so that he could sign the papers that would secure the property for us. It seems it was my task, age ten or so, to go to my now hostile granny’s home and get my father’s signature to validate, in a sense, the break up of our family.
It was many years later that I discovered that it was that particular day on which I first made an attempt on my own life.
Re-blogging with respect.
I’ve seen a number of articles written this week by men – nice, well-intentioned, feminist men, I’m sure – about how they empathize with Elliot Rodgers.
Oh, of course they’re disgusted by his actions and of course they think he was a terrible excuse for a human being, but, well, on some level they get it. Because they know what it’s like to be a lonely dude who feels isolated and unloved. They know what it’s like to want female attention but not know how to get it. They know what it’s like to be embarrassed and ashamed at finding yourself still a virgin at the age of twenty two. So while they condemn his actions, they can’t help but somehow feel a little bit sorry for him.
I can find it in my heart to feel many things, but being sorry for Elliot Rodgers will never be one of…
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