Lessons in facts of life

BEING tall, as a quite young boy I was often thought to be older than I was. This boy about the neighbourhood, whom I knew only by sight, evidently took me for the same as he, twelvish. I was ten. One November evening in the street, looking in the herba

BEING tall, as a quite young boy I was often thought to be older than I was. This boy about the neighbourhood, whom I knew only by sight, evidently took me for the same as he, twelvish. I was ten.

One November evening in the street, looking in the herbalist's shop window, he chummed up to me and said he had some fascinating information: imparted to him by his 15-year-old sister.

It sounded promising. Nobody must hear him telling me, he said. We went up an alley between the shops and there, in a low voice, he told me - what? The facts of life. Up to then, my knowledge of the matter was not much more than nil. Another boy had given me a brief, rough account: I thought it was a daft story he'd made up - whoever would do a thing like that, and why?

But I had no doubt that what this fellow now told me was true. A 15-year-old sister was practically grown-up; had to be the horse's mouth.


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Wasn't there sex education in school? This was the early 1930s. It would have been almost unimaginable. Schools weren't for that (and in most people's opinion, nor was anywhere else).

However, I say "almost". In fact, at the grammar school I attended - not very far from here - in our final year we were given two lessons under the heading Biology.

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The headmaster alone took them. He held what my mother called "advanced" views on several things: was an agnostic, a pacifist and a vegetarian, had no time for royalty, thought the metric system should be adopted here. This was bold and unconventional, certainly, but it represented enlightenment.

I have to say that to a large extent it was carrying coals to Newcastle now. We were 14 and 15. In the preceding few years boys had found out and exchanged information on the subject; we told scabrous jokes and (at times) talked earnestly about it.

And there was one other feature. The head's lessons were not sex education. That word scarcely came in: it hadn't then become a separate and public pursuit. The subject here was reproduction - where babies came from, and how the human body worked in connection with the process. He did simplified sketches and wrote proper anatomical words on the blackboard.

But even enlightenment must have its limits. Our school contained about 550 boys and two dozen masters. There was one woman on the premises: the head's secretary, Miss Green.

She was tall and well-built and, I would guess, about thirty-six years old.

We didn't see much of her; she worked chiefly in an office by the school's main entrance. However, now and again - something urgent arising - she came out to find the head. So when he gave those special lessons the classroom door was kept wide open; a boy was stationed there half-in and half-out, to keep watch while taking in the lesson. And should the secretary make an appearance, he was to call into the classroom: "Miss Green, sir!"

It didn't happen, not to my knowledge. Presumably the head would have wiped the blackboard clean and pretended he was going over some point of English grammar.

Why? Because, as everyone understood, if Miss Green saw what he had written and heard what he was saying, she'd faint.

In its more formal way, that was a repetition of the boy in the alley when I was ten. How things were, seventy-odd years ago. Is our present state much better, by which I mean bringing-about satisfactory lives? Discuss.

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