Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Man of the Cloth

The other evening, while my wife and I were having dinner with some friends, the conversation moved onto the subject of youthful innocence in the age of the internet. We all agreed about the present, but couldn't decide whether our generation were really so naive.

Then I remembered something that happened nearly 30 years ago.

When I was a student in Wales, the landlord of my local pub asked me if I'd be interested in doing some bar work when the National Eisteddfod was held in town during the summer.

I had some reservations. The Eisteddfod was the epicentre of Welsh nationalism. I was very English and my knowledge of Welsh was limited to talking about the weather and telling people that I liked coffee.

However, with the recklessness of youth, I said yes. It would be an experience. One that hopefully wouldn't include being beaten up by irate Welsh speakers.

I needn't have worried. On the first day I discovered that any anti-English sentiment was eclipsed by a bizarre animosity between the Welsh from the north and those from the south. As people realised I was English, they seemed keen to convince me how awful the other part of Wales was: "You see, they think they speak better Welsh than us, but when they say like, they should say hoffi, not licio..."

Once I learned that even the most ardent nationalists were friendlier than many English people, I began to relax and found the company invigorating, particularly that of one man. He was a vicar in his 50s who worked in a boys' home and although he drank a ridiculous amount of beer, it didn't affect his ability to talk with great clarity about Welsh culture and history.

At one point in the evening, he looked worried. "Oh, I don't know if I should drive back to my bed and breakfast in Llanllwni. It's 15 miles and I've had 12 pints. What do you think, eh?"

As the pub landlord had given me a guest room with twin beds, it seemed only right to offer the spare bed to the drunken vicar. He seemed surprised and delighted. I congratulated myself on doing the right thing.

An hour later we went up to the room, where we removed our shirts and trousers and got into our respective beds. The lights were turned off and apart from a purple glow of static from the nylon sheets, the room was completely black and eerily silent.

Then, after a minute, I heard a voice in the dark: "Do you mind if I masturbate?"

I had no idea how to reply and heard myself say "No, but I'm just going out for a while." I walked down the corridor, locked myself in the bathroom and stayed there until half an hour had passed. When I returned, the vicar was snoring like a sedated bull.

Annoyingly, the following morning he'd asked the landlord's permission to use my room for the rest of the week and I was too embarrassed to object. After all, nothing had happened, had it? I spent the next five days being keep awake by the most extraordinary snoring I've ever encountered.

As far as the laying on of hands was concerned, I stayed in the television room and watched 'V' until I felt confident that the good Rev. Davies had passed out.

At one point I wondered if I was simply being priggish about an alcohol-induced episode of onanism, but my unwanted roommate later made remarks to friends that were rather disturbing and confirmed my fears. This wasn't just a drunk, sexually frustrated cleric, but a man who seemed to have a penchant for the young and vulnerable.

This episode reminded me just how different our social mores were in the pre-internet era. When the man told me that he was a vicar who worked in a boys' home, I took it as a cast-iron guarantee of good character.

Today, my naivety seems absurd. But it wasn't unusual and it enabled clergymen, relatives and a number of entertainers to abuse the trust they enjoyed from the public. When I feel depressed by my older son's knowledge of some of the less pleasant aspects of life, I remind myself that he is also less likely to have awkward encounters with masturbating vicars and dodgy relatives.


Anonymous said...

It could have been completely harmless of course.

I wish I had the time and skill to tell my completely different tory which is also creepy (in hindsight at least).
When I was about 7, around '79/'80 I went to an 'alternative' school which did not follow normal conventional pedagogy. One of the odd things we did was go on school trips to saunas. I remember we didn't do it often but more than once. In those days saunas in New Zealand were often found in 'massage' parlours. I'm sure the one we went to was not a 'massage' parlour but I don't doubt its sleazy credentials especially since the neighbouring businesses almost certainly were.
I sincerely doubt there was any ill intention on behalf of the school and look back and consider it an odd but but life-enriching experience. What was creepy though was one time a grown man (a complete stranger) shared the jacuzzi with a bunch of us kids. I recall that he was probably friendlier than he should have been. yuck.

CulturalSnow said...

Leaving aside the shandying padre, the north/south Wales thing does remind me of Canada. I once found myself, for reasons I can't quite recall, in the French consulate in Montreal. The staff were pretty frosty, until they realised that I was neither an Anglophone Canadian (the devil incarnate) nor an American (simply beneath contempt) at which point they became quite delightful and just wanted to talk about the Beatles.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - Oh dear. According to Clement Freud, the train to Dartington - a notorious 'progressive' school - was a magnet for perverts within a 100-mile radius. I'm sure your school wasn't quite as eccentric, but letting children share a jucuzzi with a complete stranger is a bit odd.

Tim - It's good to know that the Entente Cordiale still has a little mileage left in it. It seems that no matter how great an anglophobe a person is, they still like the Beatles. Look at Putin.

I wonder if Bin Laden used to sing With a Little Help From My Friends?

Debra said...

You know, I am the daughter of a great man.
A very ambitious man who spent a lot of time being a role model to... young men, and loved it.
I know one or two things about my father's history that make... MY BROTHER very uncomfortable.
But I know that is because my brother has been successfully indoctrinated by the "current accepted idea of normality" that has "decided"; among other things, that in the 1960's, when men with any kind of authority (now looked down on automatically as "authoritarian"...) downed a scotch and soda every night before dinner, they were closet alcoholics...
Closet alcoholics, closet perverts.
So... convenient. How it allows so many people to believe in THEIR innocence at the price of foisting off the nasty motivations on others (and don't worry, I'm not pointing any fingers on this blog ; I'm saying that we certainly have some very strange... assumptions about our neighbor, and it has to make you wonder where they come from, right ? Who DOESN'T want to believe that he or she is innocent in our world ?)
How disgustingly clean we have become.. WITH OUR HINDSIGHT... (and very... naïve hindsight, while we're at it...) Priggish and self righteous to boot.
My brother already speculates that our Dad was a (closet...) homosexual, but I just smile secretly and think about the ten ton train of hindsight...
The more things change, the more they stay the same. (You gotta stop for a minute and wonder about all those... closets in a world where we're supposed to be becoming as transparent as plexiglass..)
I will stick to my guns on naïveté, though, as someone who could probably walk through Harlem and not be bothered by anybody.
Naïveté has saved me on many many occasions. It is, after all, like everything in our world, a double edged sword...
Being afraid of being taken for a ride, now... that will get you taken down at the very first about self fulfilling prophecies...

Denise said...

We seem to be more or less contemporaries and to have grown up in similar environments.

My take on this is that we were not “more innocent”, we were more ignorant, and I think many people confuse the two. Witness many religious movements trying to maintain people in a state of ignorance about sexuality whilst saying that they are protecting their innocence (and then abusing that so-called “innocence”).

I’m not sure what innocence really is; perhaps being trusting, or lack of cynicism? What I see in my friends’ children is that they are still trusting, despite having grown up with the Internet – but I’m fairly sure that if a casual, older aquaintance asked permission to masturbate in a shared bedroom, they would ask him to leave, or at the very least, to refrain. Whereas as I, in similar circumstances, acted as you did.

What did you all agree on about the present?

Steerforth said...

Debra - I agree that we shouldn't assume that men who volunteer to be scout masters or work with young boys are necessarily going to be motivated by darker desires. Neither should anyone assume that a gay man cannot be a perfectly good mentor to young men. There is a witch hunt mentality that has made many good adults reluctant to seem too keen to work with children. A loss for all concerned.

We have swung too far in one direction, but I would be very reluctant to go back to the good old days when a few bad apples could behave as they liked in one direction.

Denise - I think you've hit the nail on the head. I was remarkably ignorant about other people's sexual predilections and was genuinely horrified when what seemed like a normal conversation suddenly changed gear. But no matter how outrageous the older woman or man's behaviour was, I was always nauseatingly polite.

Re: the conversation, we simply agreed that we were horrified by the things that our children had seen and, without going into details, felt that they had been burdened with too much of the wrong sort of knowledge.

Anonymous said...

There is a long tradition in the history of humankind of feelings of superiority over others, isn't there? In the UK, people from the south make fun of people from the north. Brits make fun of the Irish. In the US, people in the north complain about how 'slow' people are from the south. People from the south complain about how rude and abrupt people from the north are. At the state level (in the US) denizens of Massachusetts consider New Hampshire-ites to be low intelligence red necks. Texans have the same feelings about Oklahoman's. In 'sophisticated' Dallas, Fort Worth is considered 'cowboy country'. When you get to the neighbourhood level, there's always a street or some other part of the area that's considered boorish and trashy. At the street level, neighbors often gossip about certain people who live in certain houses... and so on. So I'm sure that somewhere in the world there's a man sitting in his living room who absolutely hates himself...

Dale said...

As a semi-regular New Zealand correspondent here, I'd like to clarify that the anonymous poster above was not me.

I've only once been in a sauna, and that was in Finland, where my inabiity to sweat was commented on. Years later I was on a field trip in New Zealand seated next to a cheerful Vietnamese doctor. It was an extraordinarily hot day and he put his glistening bare brown arm next to my matte white one and said: "Look! Superior Asian sweat system."

He had me there.

Happily off topic as usual,
Dale in New Zealand

Lucy R. Fisher said...

I wish the internet had been around when I was young. There were very few sources of information, apart from the Agony Aunts of the Women's Magazines. I went to one of those faith schools that tried to keep children "innocent" - ie ignorant. It seems pointless to me. (And yes, isn't it funny about the Welsh and the Canadians?)

Debra said...

I sometimes feel as though I'm on a train going in the opposite direction from most of the people I know.
I'm not sure that we can reduce the sexuality problem to one of ignorance and knowledge. I know that many Westerners these days would like this question to be one of knowing and not knowing, but even in an.. Enlightened ? civilization, there is more to life than knowledge.
Since I am a curious person, I often ask people questions.. As in... did you use any form of contraceptive the first time you had sex ? (For info, I was 19 the first time, and no contraceptive, even though I was supposed to know ? knew ? the risks involved. Even the first few times...)
Almost everybody tells me that for their first time, they didn't use a contraceptive...
This was many years ago. I'm not sure things have changed much, with or without sex education.
Cut to 2002, when my son was 14. He came home one day with a condom, and he and his friend were playing with it. I was horrified. Not because I'm a prude (I have done some things probably that not a lot of people on this blog have done, but who knows ?), but because planned parenthood IN HIS SCHOOL was handing out condoms in lieu of sex education.
So I asked my son how many boys in his class had already had sex, and he said... nobody (my son was and is a social butterfly, so he had a good idea, I think. And he felt comfortable talking about THIS SUBJECT to me.).
So, after I talked to his... BIOLOGY teacher (but why not teach sex education in a literature class ? what is it about the diagrams of body parts in textbooks that has gripped our collective imagination to the point of displacing the, uh, BIBLE as an article of faith ?), she told me that the year before, one of her girl students had gotten pregnant, and that IF ONLY SHE HAD EDUCATED THE GIRL IN SEX... she wouldn't have gotten pregnant...
And I told her, you mean that you took a class of thirty 14 year old kids, and you PUT THEM IN DANGER, under the idea that you might have saved ONE 14 year old girl who... could have gotten pregnant anyway ? (Like I could have, or how many countless other young women, by the way... EVEN THOUGH WE KNEW THE RISK INVOLVED...)
Why do I say that she put the other 29 kids in danger ? Because as a responsible adult, and role model, she was participating in telling the kids that sex at 14 was O.K. AND TO BE EXPECTED.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But... in a context where adolescence is so prolonged in Western society, well, telling kids in whatever way or form that they can go ahead and do it, well... that's dumb, and irresponsible FOR AN ADULT...Trivializing, and banalizing sex is irresponsible, because sex is not trivial or banal at all, and WE ALL KNOW IT (even though a lot of us really don't want to know it...).
One last remark : the RISK of getting pregnant for a girl remains a risk, no matter what we try to pretend in our hyperrational little minds these days. And in a society where safety is our.. God, that risk can be very important. For many different reasons.
Uneducated... AND educated people take risks. Because taking a risk is on another plane from education...Taking a risk engages your whole being, not just your... mind.
And somewhere, we WANT to engage our whole being... still.

Roger C said...

I think, Steerforth, that this post beats all...

Steerforth said...

Debra - Those block capitals make me feel as if I'm being shouted at. I'm tied to a chair in a room with a bare lightbulb and you're walking around me. Every ten seconds or so you approach me and tell me that you want to know WHERE THE MONEY IS.

Debra said...

Hmm. I got the point.
I'll pick up and lumber out of the room, now.
Cheers. Good luck.