Wobbling alarmingly, she rode along the tree lined avenue on her old bicycle, in and out of shadow agitated by the breeze, looking up and seeing me her whole body became animated and moving her hand to give a jolly ring of the bell she was thrown even more off balance and lurched to an oblique halt, one foot resting on the kerb and the front wheel askew under the weight of two huge tomes which protruded from the wicker basket that was fixed to her handle bars.
‘I’ve got them!’ she shouted triumphantly with an excited wave of her bell-free hand.
My mum was forty-three, I was fifteen and she had just cycled the couple of miles from the library carrying two volumes of the Kinsey Report home for me in her bicycle basket.
This was a couple of years before the reform of the law on homosexuality in Britain; it had been discussed obliquely on the radio and I had recently asked my mother what, exactly, was a homosexual.
‘I met some in the war.’ she had said, ‘they were fun and I never minded being on duty with them which is more than I can say for most of the others. One night, I remember, they chased all the rats out of our building; we were over-run; they’d been gnawing at the wires in the telephone exchange; as the buildings around were bombed out, the rats had all moved in with us. The boys opened the gates to the lift shaft and drove them in so they fell down umpteen floors to the basement.
I asked your father once what they did, the queers I mean, but he wouldn’t tell me… Perhaps we had better get a book.’
My mother wasn’t an educated woman, she could read and write, spell and add-up, subtract, multiply, divide and use a Ready-Reckoner. She had lovely handwriting and knew her tables. She knew the capitals of most of the countries coloured red on the map, in what had been the British Empire, now the Commonwealth and she could spell Mississippi – that was about it.
She had been taught by her mother to cook and how to speak properly (her mother had been lady’s-maid to Lady Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, and had stayed in some of the grandest houses in Britain and after her marriage she had cooked for all those policemen and attendants who worked at the magistrate’s court in Central London, where her husband was Clerk — so she knew how to cook and how the upper classes spoke, although Granny’s own voice retained a trace of the rural Essex of her birth).
My mother also knew the Ten Commandments, which she took seriously, and the importance of a good marriage and a quick smile – in fact, everything a lady needed to know in the middle of the twentieth century.
We went to the bookshop in Portscatho, in Cornwall during our holiday and (I can visualise the actual shelf) we purchased a Pelican, blue covered paperback, entitled ‘Homosexuality’, this I read with great expectation and disappointment – it told me nothing that I wanted to know but… It had a bibliography – the key to education!
When I went to the Public Library I threw the library staff into consternation, the books I requested from the bibliography were on a list – a restricted list – no one had requested such a book before – Welwyn Garden City had until that date been unaware of Dr Kinsey and his colleagues’ exhaustive study of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male or indeed its sequel, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female.
Again I was disappointed – denied the results of serious research on the grounds of age – the book could only be borrowed by someone who had attained the age of twenty-one (it might have been eighteen). I returned two hours later with my mother. There had been no fuss, I had explained to her my dilemma and she had simply picked up her purse and her library card.
She assured the senior librarian that she was over twenty-one ( he was nearing retirement and she was still very pretty with thick black hair that lolloped over one eye), she proffered her library card and her request and the books were duly ordered and collected a few days later, as described, by bicycle.
Knowledge is Power and there is nothing more embarrassing than ignorance.
Nothing shocked me in those dry academic tomes, nor my mother, who looked over my shoulder from time to time and asked me how I was getting on. I was empowered. I became an authority within the fifth form of my girls’ grammar school on all matters sexual and from a position of knowledge, if not experience.
Later, when I went to medical school I was fore-armed; nothing, in those innocent days, caught me unawares (unlike a fellow student, a man, much older than myself, who was overheard in a fertility clinic cross examining an attractive female patient , ‘How can you be having intercourse eight times a week when there are only seven nights in the week?’)
When my school friends expressed disgust at hitherto shady aspects of human sexuality and asked ‘Ugh, How low can they get?’ I knew the answer: A Jack Russell!