Lessons in love (1981)

Fonda, you have much to answer for.
“Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.”
WH Auden 

“So, Andy,” said Dad with a twinkle. “How do you fancy staying up late tonight?”

I was 11 years old. Bedtime on school nights was 8pm, 10 at the latest at weekends. To be allowed to stay up after Mum went to bed was a treat on a par with a personal visit from Tom Baker.

The reason for this break with protocol, it emerged, was that Dad wanted me to watch a film with him: Barbarella, the 1968 comic-book adaptation starring Jane Fonda as an interstellar explorer with an uncanny knack of losing her clothes. I enjoyed the film more for the robots and monsters than for Jane’s wardrobe malfunctions, although the semi-nudity did coincide with some stirrings which, at the time, I put down to Mum’s shepherd’s pie.

It was years before I worked out what was going on that night. Roger Vadim’s kitsch sci-fi romp was, I realised, the sum total of my parents’ efforts to explain to me the myriad complexities of human reproduction. No awkward birds-and-bees talk, no 1950s government information booklet “accidentally” left by my bedside; just a scantily clad spacewoman being pecked to death by budgerigars.

The state didn’t do much better. We had one sex education lesson, at the end of my second year, which consisted of two indecipherable diagrams, some vague mumblings about Aids, and a five-minute video of a gruff-looking German woman unrolling a balloon over a stick. It was like teaching Mandarin from a takeaway menu. There was nothing about feelings; no clue as to whether this was roughly average size for a stick; and most importantly, no pointers on how to persuade the German woman to touch your stick in the first place.

The internet and self-help literature were years away. If I’d had any brothers or sisters, I might have gleaned the odd snippet by putting my ear to their bedroom door; as it was, the only scraps of information available were the eye-boggling fisherman’s yarns of the playground and the odd scrunched-up jazz mag abandoned in the woods. And with coordinated teams of torch-wielding teenagers combing for them in overlapping eight-hour shifts, those were hard to come by.

But I wasn’t too worried. Everyone else seemed to get by without an instruction manual. Sex obviously comes naturally to humans, as it does to the animals. I would instinctively know the right thing to do when the time came. Wouldn’t I?

♥ As you read this, a million people are having sex. (The World Health Organisation estimates that 100 million sex acts take place every day, and as the average duration of intercourse is 7 minutes, at any one moment, there are about 500,000 couples making whoopee.)

And when we’re not doing it, it’s never far from our minds. The oft-touted statistic that men think about sex every nine seconds is a myth, but various studies put the figure at anything between several times a day and once a minute. It’s reckoned that there are about half a billion pages of porn on the internet, and sexual images are everywhere, in newspapers and magazines, on TV and advertising billboards.

Yet for a species seemingly so obsessed with sex, mankind has been remarkably slow to learn about it. The derisory state of sex education in the 1980s isn’t actually that surprising when you consider that sex and love and relationships, were, until roughly that time, a mystery to everyone. 

Whether it was because sex was taboo, or because we felt the subject somehow beneath our attention – everyone knows how to have sex, don’t they? – there was practically no research into the field until the alarmingly recent past. In 1982, John Farley, in his book Gametes and Spores, wrote: “Sex remains almost as complete an enigma today as it was 300 years ago when Dutch microscopists discovered minute ‘animalcules’ swimming about in human seminal fluid.”

Sure, we’d figured out the nuts and bolts – but even they were a long time coming. Sperm (as opposed to semen) were only discovered in 1677, and it was another 150 years before anyone clapped eyes on a human egg. Until the mid-18th century, most scientists still held to the ancient Greeks’ theory that male semen contained complete human beings, and women were just a sort of incubator.

Things didn’t move much quicker in the early 20th century. In 1933, Sigmund Freud advised those who wished to learn about women to “turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information”. Alfred Kinsey published his reports on human sexual behaviour in 1948 and 1953, and while they revealed a lot about what people did, they offered no explanation of why they did it. In fact, we’d split the atom, invented the laser and landed on the moon before anyone had even begun to address many of the fundamental questions of sex.

Why do we have sex? Why does attraction fade? Why do people cheat? Why are there so many female prostitutes, and so few heterosexual male ones? Why is it always men who propose? Why are so many women attracted to men who treat them badly? Why do you often see beautiful women with ordinary-looking men, but never the opposite? What is beauty anyway? Why is it more acceptable for men to sleep around than women? Why is it easier to meet a partner when you already have one? Why are there so many single mums and so few single dads? What’s so attractive about a sense of humour? And what, exactly, is chemistry?

Many of these questions hadn’t even been asked by the time I was born, and none of those that had had received satisfactory answers.

The first breakthroughs to cast light on these issues came in the 1970s – although they were building on a theory that was more than 100 years old.

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Helicopters in the stomach (1983)

I got the racer two weeks later.
“He was so afraid of girls that he made a secret study of them. But the more he studied them, the more he feared them.”
Opening dialogue card, Harold Lloyd’s ‘Girl Shy’, 1924

Until that Monday, I minded my own business. I went fishing for minnows at the weir with Heath and Jez. I threw myself into my history homework with what I would eventually realise was borderline pathological zeal. I got thrashed at contract whist by Mum and Dad and Nana Martin; skidded down the grassy slopes of Barbury Castle on old cardboard boxes; counted down the hours to the next episode of Doctor Who. In short, I enjoyed innocent, uncomplicated passions that I thought would last for ever.

Until that Monday.

She wasn’t what you’d call classically gorgeous. In fact, no one else seemed to have noticed her. She was quiet, slim, average height, with hypnotic, sparkling grey-green eyes, hair like burnt Shredded Wheat, and what seemed to be a giant steel girder attached to her face. 

Yes, she wore a dental brace; one of those terrifying Disneyland monorail affairs going all the way round her head. But every time she smiled – even through all that scaffolding – my heart tried to jump out through the top of my head. 

For the first few weeks, I contented myself with gazing across at Kerry in Geography, ignoring the teacher’s dronings about the formation of terminal moraines and wondering how it was that no one else could hear the tom-tomming of my heart and the Lynx attack helicopters circling in my stomach. Before then, I had always been the first to raise my hand when the teacher asked a question. Now I waited for my beloved to raise hers, in the hope that her sleeve would slip a little and expose just a couple more inches of heavenly forearm. 

With every passing week, the helicopters grew louder and the throbbing more intense – but I still had only the dimmest notion of what they meant. There was a rumour that Steven Foster, a loud, scruffy boy in my tutor group, had been seen holding hands with Lizzie Stutters, a skinny, spotty girl in the year below. And I’d heard other children talk about “fancying” girls – but somehow the word “fancy” didn’t quite cut it. After all, when people say, “I fancy a cup of tea”, it means they’d quite like a cup of tea, but it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t get one. And I knew it would be the end of the world if I didn’t get Kerry. 

So, the day we broke up for half-term in February 1983, during afternoon break, I sought out Sharon Penney. Sharon was no great shakes at English or Maths; but when it came to Other People’s Business Studies, she was top of the class. 

She was uncooperative at first, but an offer of two lots of maths homework soon loosened her tongue. Kerry lived on the main street in Broad Hinton, she said, a village five miles from mine. 

So three days later, trembling with excitement and dread, I put on my only remotely trendy pair of trousers, gave my bike a thorough clean, and set off. 

Five miles wouldn’t normally be much to ask of an able-bodied 13-year-old on a bicycle. But there were complicating factors. First, my chariot wasn’t exactly state of the art; it was a three-year-old Raleigh Grifter, a sort of bulky proto-BMX with none of the BMX’s ruggedness or manoeuvrability. Second, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get there. And third, it was -7 degrees C, and we were well into our third consecutive day of heavy snow. But somehow, two hours later, a pitiful snowman on wheels dismounted outside 128 Post Office Lane. 

After I’d brushed off all the powder, I took a minute to catch my breath, and thought about what I was doing for the first time. I liked Kerry, but would she like me? I’d never really considered whether I was good-looking or not. Nana Bodle always called me her “handsome boy”, but she was biased. I was skinny. And ginger. And, according to Steven Foster and his mates, a nerdy swot. On the other hand, I was a nice boy from a nice family – well spoken, fairly intelligent. And I was wearing my trendy trousers.  

Oh well. There was only one way to find out. I screwed up my eyes and knocked. 

After 20 agonising seconds, a young girl – a good two years younger than the one I was expecting – answered the door. 

“Hello?” 

“Um… h-hello.” With the cold and the nerves, I was juddering like an arrow in an archery target. 

“What do you want?” Very self-possessed, was this 11-year-old. 

“Is this Kerry’s house?”

The doorman sneered. “Yeah.”

I had rehearsed everything up to this point. But it now dawned on me that I had no idea what was supposed to happen next. Should I ask to come in? Should I ask if Kerry wanted to come out? What if she was busy? My mind was as blank and skiddy as the country lanes I’d just cycled over. 

So I mumbled, “OK, thanks,” jumped back on my bike, and rode the five miles home. 

I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d had the courage to say something that day. But it presumably wouldn’t have involved the entire population of the school laughing at me for a week. 

♥ Charles Darwin hated peacocks. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” he wrote to botanist Asa Gray in 1860. 

The previous year, Darwin had published Origin of Species, setting out his theory of natural selection – a theory 20 years in the making. His idea, with all that it implied for the story of the Creation, had been greeted with predictable howls of rage from the church, but its reception in the scientific community and the general public was much warmer. No one could point to anything that seriously undermined his simple, elegant argument. 

Except for the peacock. 

If Darwin was right, and all the traits of modern animals were adaptations that had evolved over millions of years to maximise their chances of survival, then what was this ridiculous bird doing strutting around showing off its elaborate, brightly coloured feathers, which are not only useless and cumbersome, but actually reduce its chances of survival by making it more visible to predators? 

In fact, natural selection struggled with sex differences generally. It couldn’t, for example, explain the southern elephant seal, the males of which are five to six times heavier than the females. It couldn’t explain deer antlers, which are good for nothing but fighting other deer with. And it certainly couldn’t explain the green spoonworm, a type of marine worm in which the male is a glorified, brainless pair of testes that spends its entire life inside the female’s genitals.

By the rules of natural selection, males and females ought (sexual organs aside) to be identical. After all, they face identical challenges: they share the same habitat and the same diet; they have the same predators, succumb to the same illnesses. Adaptations that are useful to one sex should be just as useful to the other. 

Sex, Darwin realised, was the key. The ultimate test of evolutionary success is not how good you are at surviving, but how good you are at reproducing. From a genetic point of view, it’s better to live a short life and produce some offspring than it is to live to a ripe old age and have none. 

The peacock’s brilliant plumage may work against its survival – but because big, showy tails happen to appeal to peahens, they increase its chances of mating. The same is true of the male elephant seal’s bulk, the male deer’s antlers and, in theory, the small male human’s trendy trousers. 

Darwin presented his theory of “sexual selection” in The Descent of Man, in 1871  and was roundly ignored. The biologist RA Fisher revived the idea briefly in 1930 with his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, but it was another 40 years before anyone realised just how powerful a light this insight could shine on human relationships – and on human nature in general. 

Helicopters in the stomach (audio)

I’ve just remembered there’s a link online to a recording of me reading out the Helicopters story (a slightly different version) at Spark, London’s storytelling club, a couple of months ago. The link is on the right, under “My other stuff”.

When I can figure out how to upload audio to this site, I might do more stories like this in future (there’s one I’d quite like to do as a full on radio play).

What do you think?

The science of dating