At Seventeen

A seventeen year old boy has died at the Reading Festival this year. This is a tragic event for him-his young life ended just as it was beginning-and for his parents, family and friends. It set me thinking back to my life at seventeen.

Seventeen is an ‘in-between’ age, at once awkward, daring, angst-ridden and thrilling. You’ll be on the verge of leaping from childhood into adulthood, preparing for university or employment, marriage [as my mother was] or parenthood. Janis Ian’s heartfelt ‘At Seventeen’ describes the longing and the turmoil involved in being the age:

‘And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone’

As a seventeen year old and the youngest in our family I appeared to have been granted a lot of freedom for the time [the late 60s]. The hippy period was underway. I had a suitably Lennon-esque, guitar-playing boyfriend with a car. We roamed the county in search of music gigs, getting to see everyone from Fairport Convention and Family to John Heisman’s Coliseum and Chicken Shack. I wore long, trailing skirts and often went barefoot out of school hours. I went on camping trips in a group that consisted of all boys, trusted by my mother because the boyfriend and all the others were choirboys! Little did she guess…

We experimented with weed, drank more than we could cope with, spent long nights listening to entire albums [LPs as they were] by our favourite musicians. When I was left at home for many weekends while my parents went to help out with caring for my sick grandfather I either spent the days at the boyfriend’s, lolling about in his bedroom while his mother made meals for us, or holding impromptu, drunken parties in my own parent-free home. The aftermath of these drunken and weed-ridden bashes meant Sundays attempting to clean up and formulating explanations for broken items, aromas or stains.

At the watershed that was end of school and start of student life, Boyfriend and I went our separate ways, figuratively and literally-he to Sheffield and I to London. When I announced to my mother that a subsequent Boyfriend and I were to share a flat she astounded me by being outraged, spluttering ‘You needn’t think you are doing that in this house!’ Could she really have had no idea at all about my activities as a seventeen-year-old?

My own, post-Aids era offspring were of course more circumspect, more grounded and less wild. They grew up in the Margaret Thatcher, shoulder-pad years and without the benefits of student grants; with 80s music, Rubik’s Cubes and Angel Delight.

Parenting is tough. Kids can’t be sheltered forever. You have to arm them with common sense and knowledge of the facts, be there when needed and then let them go-with fingers crossed tightly behind your back. You might be horribly unlucky, as were the parents of the boy at the festival or you might be fortunate, as were my own, blissfully ignorant parents.

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Adventures in Dance

Some people are dancers. Others are not. I fall into a kind of hybrid category, in that I am a dancer in my imagination.

As a tiny child of four I was hauled off to Ballet lessons. Initially these took place at ‘Miss Pinegar’s School of Ballet’ in Salisbury, Southern England. Miss Pinegar’s was held in a dark and gloomy hall. We’d use a cloakroom to have our shoes changed for those soft, flesh pink slippers and off we trotted to perfect our pliés and pas des deux. I was even involved in a performance-as a flower fairy in an extravaganza loosely based upon ‘Babes in the Wood’. So far so good.

We moved to East Anglia [as described in a previous post]. A ballet school was duly found. I was given a list of French terms to learn. Others seemed more accomplished and lissom than I, so that I fell by the bar side. I dug my tiny heels in and refused.

When the sixties rushed in, deluging all with Minis, Carnaby Street, The Beatles and swinging style I applied myself with dogged single-mindedness to learning ‘The Twist’ and then ‘The Shake’, gyrating in energetic circles around my friend, Gillian Farley’s kitchen table.

The sixties morphed seamlessly into the seventies and hippie-dom saw us drifting around like characters from Lord of the Rings in elfin attire, skirts sweeping the floor and covering our bare feet-which was just as well since they were filthy from being unshod. We swayed about to ‘Are you going to San Francisco’ with flowers in our hair, thinking we were ethereal, mysterious and elegant.

Thereafter any adventures in the land of Dance were curtailed owing to being mired in the bog of children and domesticity, although my own small daughter, clad in her own soft, pink slippers cavorted around a church hall looking more than cute in a gauzy, circular skirt and leotard.

In my forties I began a newly single life and took up activities hitherto unimagined during married life such as ‘Ceroc’, sometimes called ‘Leroc’ [originating in France] and these days called ‘Mo-jive’-a form of super energetic, fast jiving involving countless moves with a partner which took [me] a very long time to learn. While we single women were not prevented from acquiring Ceroc skills by being in a partner-less state we were hampered by there being significantly fewer male pupils, and since we were required to move along and change partners every few minutes there was always long, snaking queue of women waiting to get back into the line.

There were pleasant enough men at the Ceroc sessions but romantic attachments were rarely formed, however one startling outcome was that after many months of dogged stumbling and treading on toes I learned to dance the Ceroc, for a time becoming addicted to it. Even now, after nearly 20 years with Husband [who planted his feet firmly in the dance-free zone] I am always entranced by watching others twirling together in an effortless jive.

Watching dance, in fact is something I find I love-whether it is the uninhibited thrashing about to a band at the pub or the unutterably lovely elegance of Swan Lake. What’s not to like?

Nudity Laid Bare

                In the developed world the cult of worship of lean, youthful, beautiful bodies continues. The evidence is everywhere-on posters, adverts, TV, internet and on the street. Here in France there is a move to ban child beauty pageants, a move all our countries should be making. We should not be soaking our children in the idea that looks are the most valuable, the most important quality they can possess, neither should we be ‘hyper-sexualising’ them [to quote the French minister responsible for the action].

                Yet here in France, nudity is not only acceptable, but positively celebrated. I’d like to say that on the many naturist beaches, camp sites and resorts that exist in France the nudity is natural, innocent and innocuous, but when we’ve encountered them, traversing them during bike rides or walks [it is difficult not to in some areas], you cannot help but suspect there is an element of ‘display’ to the exposure. It is tricky, as a clothed person, not to look, when crossing a beach where everyone is unclothed. This is no discreet sunbathing amongst the sand dunes. Many [men especially] stand in the sea or at a vantage point, as much to be seen as to see.

                I was a teenager of the sixties and a young woman of the seventies, when hippie-dom, flower power and ‘free love’ were the mantra we all followed. In this era of what our elders termed the permissive society we became unleashed from the previous generation’s prudish attitudes. At music festivals kids frolicked naked in the mud, made love not war; anything went. There was an innocence to this behaviour. Then there was AIDS, conservatism, an end to free university education and ultimately the big recession.

                It is always said that in an era of boom hemlines rise, then plunge when times are tight. Nudity these days is not the innocent muddy frolicking of the early seventies, but a cynical exploitation seen in music videos or advertising. Outside of the media there has been a return, even on UK beaches, to the wearing of clothes, no ‘topless’ sunbathing, longer swimming shorts, more of what my mother, who was constantly shocked by the notion of ‘free love’ and all that accompanied it,  would have termed ‘modesty’. In the USA there has always been a more conservative approach to beach wear, ‘topless’ in my experience of US beaches, being against the law.

                Years ago I accompanied two friends on a 48 hour trip to Dieppe, the idea being to have a look round and collect some spoils from the supermarché. It was a warm day. We sat on the pebbly beach with ice creams. A large group of mixed middle aged singles and couples appeared and trudged down to the water’s edge, where they stripped off without the need for towels for concealment and donned swimwear. This was all undertaken without a scrap of self consciousness or awareness of anyone’s eyes. They then plunged into the sea as if no one else was there, simply to enjoy the swim; refreshing in more ways than one…