Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Wop Bop A Loo Bop, Koax Koax

Around this time of year, I start listening out at night for the frogs returning to our "pond". I put the word in inverted commas, because it's really an Early Learning Centre sandpit, whose lid has filled with rainwater and been so thoroughly colonised by waterplants and pondlife that I haven't the heart to clean it out. Slightly surreally, the sandpit is intact beneath the lid, and -- to the best of my memory -- some plastic dinosaurs are still posed down there, frozen in eternal flight and pursuit (think Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn).

Many years ago our kids returned home with a jar of frogspawn from a real pond, and ever since the sandpit-pond has been the ancestral swamp of generations of frogs. Every February, they return from far-flung parts to indulge in a week or two of orgiastic sex, before leaving their bubbly piles of spawn behind to fend for themselves. It must be strange, having sex on your mind for just two weeks of the year. It must leave plenty of time to concentrate on catching flies, and getting to wherever it is frogs go during the rest of the year.

Frog Frenzy in the Valley Garden pond

Our contemporary human world is so super-saturated with sex, that it's hard to imagine that there was ever a time when it wasn't. Of course, our world is not so much saturated with sex, as with a hyper-real eroticization that has about as much similarity to "sex" as Grand Theft Auto does to "street crime". Both appear to have been filtered through the over-heated imaginings of a 15-year old boy.

I can speak with authority, as I was once myself a 15-year old boy. But, unlike today, in those days (40+ years ago!) the world offered very little validation for whatever fevers were going on in our minds. Pictures of bare naked people were a resource as scarce and as carefully controlled as moon rock. We were still practically Victorians, swooning over hints and glimpses, enduring sweet agonies of arousal at the beach or swimming pool, or mesmerised by a Sunday Times colour supplement photograph. It was a simpler time to be adolescent, and in many ways a lot more fun. I remember the first few times I experienced full-frontal (but fully-clothed) contact with a girl at a dance: I fully expected to be arrested for public indecency.

Even the "top shelf" magazines of the day were laughable in their innocence. A typical copy of Parade, even in the late 60s, contained nothing more wicked than some awkward, artless shots of topless girls-next-door with laquered flickup hairstyles, wearing bikini bottoms and a smirk. Even so, the pages did give off that authentic low-life whiff that was associated, in the 1950s, with teddy boys, bikers, and Soho. In those days, the barriers were both lower and much clearer: anyone could transgress, if they dared to. Most people didn't. Why, even to know about sitting in a bath to get your Levis to shrink to fit was pretty far out.* Real 1950s rock'n'roll is all about that reek of sulphur: Shakin' all over! Gene Vincent!! Little Richard!!! But it was something no respectable person could admit to liking. College types listened to trad jazz, parents listened to Perry Como, posh folk had their classical.

But, perhaps backlit by its almost total eclipse, a nascent sexiness flickered around the edges of our lives as children, as it must always have done down the ages. Girls might detain a boy in a field, and subject him to torture by kissing. Sometimes, when you were playing in the woods, you would come across a scatter of pieces of a torn-up magazine page, a lot of which were flesh-coloured. We would amuse ourselves by piecing them back together. Boys would accompany their fathers to the barbers (we used to sit on a plank put across the arms of the barber's chair) where the traditional question, "Something for the weekend, sir?" was asked, without furtiveness, and answered by a hand dipping into the Durex boxes openly displayed by the mirror. And the fashions of the 1950s and early 60s were nothing if not "gendered".

Get a room!

But then, around 1965/66, news of the so-called Moors Murders began to filter into the public consciousness, and things began to change. Children of our age had been abducted, abused, and murdered: "stranger danger" and an awareness of some truly scary transgressive behaviour entered the picture. Gradually -- tragically, in my view -- those simple pleasures of childhood like staying out all day and playing free in the streets, woods and fields, simply came to an end. The world was a scarier place than we'd thought.

Yet, at about the same time, the sexing-up of everyday life had begun. Adverts, magazines, TV programmes, books, films: all began an escalating barrage of sexualisation, that was fun at the time and solemnly endorsed by public intellectuals, but which has now, it seems, all but obliterated childhood, and made adolescence a pretty fraught experience. Sexual practices and attitudes to the body that would once have been the preserve of a secret and semi-professional minority are now commonplace. Why, surely everyone now knows what it means to speculate whether a certain presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme has now, or has ever had a "Prince Albert"? So why shouldn't this be the subject of jokey innuendo on popular BBC comedy programmes?**

Despite the brief heyday of feminism in the 1970s and 80s, it sometimes seems that the pornographic imaginings of 15-year old boys have been amplified, endorsed, packaged, and then sold back to the rest of us as "normal"; aspirational, even. How strange is that? And how confusing (not least for a 15-year old girl). Perhaps the time has come when we need to ask whether it has been a price worth paying. Sex is normal, fun, but a private matter between consenting grown-ups. I don't want it used to sell me cars and cornflakes.

It must be so much simpler being a frog.

Frog quest

* Although getting your legs dyed woad blue as a consequence was not at all sexy, as I can testify. I'm pretty sure that's not how the Ancient Britons did it.

** Answer (and I never thought I'd say something like this): Because my daughter is watching, you thoughtless, arrogant, grinning morons.

*** In case you're puzzled, the title of this post combines Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" with the chorus from "The Frogs" by Aristophanes.


Frank Harkin said...

Great post, Mike

Dave Leeke said...

I must admit to writing a song along a similar theme last June. It must be our age:

But nowadays they know it all
They've seen every virtual inch.
Ah, such disappointment waiting
In that first lovers' clinch

Martin H. said...

Ah, 'Parade' and 'Girls Illustrated'! Such a welcome sight for a 15 year old lad with an enquiring mind. As I remember, there was no shortage of girls who 'would'. It's just that they invariably looked like frogs.

Dave Leeke said...

Before time passes:

You seem to have hit the zeitgeist - well, at least, the flavour of the moment. This week's news and the Home Office report about the "sexualisation" of youth seems to spring from the same well*.

The song mentioned was based on a tv documentary where some academic went to a school in Norfolk and all the kids (particularly girls) thought that images that were so airbrushed/Photoshopped/whatevered were the most acceptable that I found it both heart-breaking and worrying.

Originally I was going to be very flippant about airbrushing and H&E - but in reality, I find it quite worrying that modern youth have very unreal expectations of the "other sex". I'm speaking as both parent and teacher here.

* Apologies to readers from around the world - I'm being rather Anglo-Centric here. Mike's blog has a very wide readership.

Mike C. said...

"You seem to have hit the zeitgeist" -- and not for the first time, I have to say, immodestly.

Being the parent of daughters is the best cure I know for purging any remnant of unreconstructed adolescent attitudes towards women and sexuality... (though I was pretty much put through the cleansing fire of 70s feminism as a student -- I became an utterly different person in less than one year).