As I listened to the Whiffenpoof Yale Choir singing ” As I was young and foolish”, at their concert last night, I thought I know all about that… I was twelve in 1950 when we were given a lecture during science on human reproduction. It was very boring, nine tenths of it was a film about rabbits , and the last tenth was a diagram of stick figures with arrows demonstrating that the sperm passed from the man to the woman.
“Any questions?” said the science mistress at the end of this, in a very repressive voice, to which I was totally insensitive. I pressed brashly on. “Yes, how did it get from the man to the woman”, I asked? “You should have watched the film.” she snapped, as the whole class took a deep collective in-breath. “But I did”, I protested. End of lesson. It didn’t really matter, I was more pre-occupied with Baroness Orxy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at that stage… “they seek him here, they seek him there….”
A year later I got the lowdown on the rudiments of human reproduction in the school train. Rude was what it seemed to me, and I looked with utter distaste at the forty year old English master whose wife was having a baby. How could an elderly man like him – I thought to myself – how could he?
The next step in my education was the publication of Nevil Shute’s “A Town Like Alice”, which was the subject of hushed talk in the Lower Fourth. Most people think it’s about a couple who fall in love during their brutal imprisonment by the Japanese. But we were n’t interested in that. There were two sentences in the whole book which riveted us. The couple found each other after the war, and went off on holiday to try to re-capture their original feelings. One night she wore a sarong like the one she’d worn in Malaya, and this did the trick apparently. We read with bated breath the words “Did what I think happened last night really happen?” and read with some horror, her strange reply: “Well, I’m covered in bruises.” This was puzzling on several counts. What on earth goes on, we pondered.
Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the Durbervilles” was the next heroine who furthered my general knowledge on this rather arcane subject back then. I discovered from this book that human reproduction was a very risky business, which in Tess’s case, led from seduction to unwanted pregnancy, a husband who abandoned her on their honeymoon when she told him, and then the seducer rescuing Tess from poverty and despair, until the husband pops up again. In her rage she stabs the wretched seducer, and ends up being hanged. Not a good look for ignorant teenagers searching for information.
But it came in a much more attractive package when I was at boarding school. This blue book was wrapped in brown paper so that none of the teachers knew we had it. It was furtively passed around the senior girls’ dormitory, and I was at the end of the line, being the most recent arrival. Finally I got to the pages of Frank Yerby’s “The Foxes of Harrow”, which were causing all the excitement. I discovered from this sex manual that women could be frigid – what on earth was that? And the hero of this tale – if hero he could be called – got so fed-up with his frigid wife that he packed her off to town to be de-fridged by a sort of white witch, who was actually a Black American.
When she returned to her home, and expectant husband, they both couldn’t wait to get up to the bedroom, where the husband stripped off her clothes as fast as he could. But his patience gave out when he fumbled with her pearl necklace, and to our collective relish, he ripped it apart, and priceless pearls cascaded unheeded around the bedroom. Wow, we all thought! You don’t wear jewellery in bed! This couple too, seemed to have had a rough ride, because in the morning, one or other of them had a back which had, in the words of the story, been “raked” by fingernails. Hell’s teeth! as my father would have said.
Finally Gone with The Wind fell into my eager hands. Not much sex here, but a manual on childbirth for me. Melanie Wilkes giving birth while Atlanta burned around her, and stifling her groans of agony by wringing her hands on a knotted towel stood me in good stead.
When I gave birth to my first child, having moved house as an army wife, and having slipped too through the cracks of any ante-natal classes – if indeed they existed then – I only had Melanie’s example to guide me. I lay on my bed of pain, sunk into the deepest, blackest pit, suppressing my groans like Melanie had done. Somewhere high up above me I heard the midwife say to my husband you might as well go home, she’s asleep.
So off he went, and I didn’t see him for another six months. When I was wheeled back to my room in the morning, there was a brief telegram:” Gone to Cyprus”. The unspoken other half of this communication was: “to be shot at by Greeks and Turks.” His regiment had been bundled off to Cyprus to quell another insurrection.
We were too young to qualify for army allowances, so back home, sans money, family, neighbours, phone and car – since I couldn’t drive the one holed up in the garage, I needed help. I turned to Dr Spock.
Pregnant again as soon as the husband returned unharmed by Greeks or Turks, for the next few years the only book I read was Dr Benjamin Spock’s child rearing manual, as I wrestled with colic and constipation, solids and sleep deprivation. And since those desperate days, the raunchy reading of my youth hasn’t had the same allure. We called them Blue books back then, though they probably weren’t, and I can’t see me thumbing through Fifty Shades of Grey now… especially since a survey has shown that a surprisingly large number of readers never bother to read to the end!
Dr Spock, on the other hand, I read from cover to cover. Not once but many times, hoping to enlighten my ignorance on how to cope with babies. But really, I needed more than Dr Spock, just as I needed more than Melanie.
Recipe for Threadbare Gourmets
Yesterday I ran out of time and ingredients, and was feeling guilty that I’d been out two nights running leaving the old chap with a cold meal. One night at a concert listening to The Whiffenpoofs, the Yale Choir, and last night, Tai Chi. So I felt I had to cook, and an omelette didn’t seem good enough. Though this is a real threadbare meal, it’s one we love. You need a cup of long grain rice, well washed, and put on to boil with two scant cups of water, salt, three cloves and quarter to half a teaspoon of cinnamon.
Clamp the lid on tightly and boil on as low as possible for twenty minutes. Then pull off the heat and leave covered for another ten minutes. Meanwhile gently fry one or two onions, and two cups of chopped celery, adding several cloves of chopped garlic towards the end. At this stage I either chop up some cooked chicken, open a tin of shrimps, or fish out some frozen prawns, and stir whatever it is into the onion mixture. Allow two eggs for two people, but three eggs for four – and this amount of rice is probably enough for four reasonable people – beat the eggs lightly and stir into the pan for fifty seconds. Then add the rice, gently stirring to mix it all up. If I have spring onions to hand, I chop them in. Eat immediately with some green salad. (Just don’t try to eat the cloves.) It’s a very delicately flavoured meal.
Food for Thought
The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself. Lao-Tse Ancient Chinese philosopher, author of the Tao Te Ching, and considered to be the founder of Taoism