Think of the most innocent teenager you can possibly imagine. Give her pom-pom hair, NHS glasses, enormous self-hating jumpers; then double her shameful ignorance, her inability even to imagine a naked male, let alone what she would do with one. Add the central fact known to even the most naive of adolescents: that, if you don’t immediately have sex with the first person who asks you, nobody ever will again.
Sounds bad? It gets worse. Make sure that the poor child – sixteen now, nearly seventeen – has an active and romantic imagination, yet knows not a single person she could ask about the practicalities, emotional, physical, of snogging, let alone what happens next. And then take this tragic creature, this paradigm of squareness, and put her in a largely boys’ boarding-school.
That girl was me.
Innocence is a privilege, and a curse. I grew up in Oxford: a tragically square child even by the impressively swotty standards of my peers. I tried halfheartedly to teach myself Ancient Greek, searched for fossils in the back garden, worried about my infinite failings and spent my pocket-money on Just William and the Beano, which taught me that boys have fun and girls barely exist. I had private parents, no brothers, no first cousins, uncles, aunts or godparents; my friends’ elder siblings seemed like adults. The boys at my primary school were invisible; by ten I was at a girls’ secondary school, where Keats was a reasonable love-object and we thought Bob Dylan’s ’Just Like a Woman’was the height of filth.
Others have recovered from such bad beginnings. In my case, there were further complications.
Most women of my generation, raised in the Seventies and Eighties by Baby Boomer parents, had grandparents of another, stricter, era. You know the details: outside lavatories, good manners, a sense of propriety, especially about sex. Anyone who saw their elderly relatives as much as I did, every weekend, all holiday, would absorb a little of that, wouldn’t they?
Perhaps. But my grandparents, whom I loved and respected, were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My grandfather had a duelling scar. After fifty years in Britain, their standards had not relaxed; references to sex, illness or financial hardship, swearing or arguing in public, being seen en route to the toilet, were completely taboo.
Despite this, my grandmother was weirdly relaxed about bodily issues; I was not. Aged thirteen, and only somewhat pubescent, I was lying in a hammock having a nosebleed when she commented: ‘so, blood from one end but still not from the other?’ She was unashamed of her underwear, so thought nothing of whipping back the shower curtain to discuss with me, shivering, naked, what to have for dinner. And so, yearning for boys, for sex and love, but more familiar with the body of an eighty-year-old woman than that of any male, convinced that to be overheard weeing was a shame from which I could not recover, and with a sex education confined to stamens, plus that unforgettable scene in Judy Blume’s Forever, it is no surprise that I remained entirely clueless. How, for example, could something horizontal could enter something vertical? I couldn’t work it out.
Extreme innocence is fine, in theory, but it can’t last. Eventually, even the most unprepossessing teenager will be invited to a party at which there will be equally unappetising boys, alcohol, and a pervasive atmosphere of meat-market desperation. This is where the trouble begins
Marina, the protagonist of my fourth novel, is a spoddy almost-seventeen-year-old living in a shabby basement flat with elderly foreign relatives. She is convinced – as I was – that everybody else knows how to be happy: has the key to dealing with alcohol, boys. So intense is her longing to be different that she begs to go away to boarding-school, which her family cannot afford. I interviewed women who, for the sixth form, had moved to schools posher and more brutal than mine. Based on their horror stories, I invented Combe Abbey: a recently co-ed rural hell-hole, full of blonde sporty good-looking stockbrokers’ children, where the boys hold up placards to rate the girls’ attractiveness, drench them in water on a weekly basis, give them graphic nicknames based on their entirely imaginary frigidity or sluttishness; are, with the support of the staff, entirely in charge.
Marina’s overheated speculations lead her from awkwardness to danger; she finds herself in situations I would not want any girl I know to experience, because I have. At first, Almost English was a portrait of the perils of innocence. I wanted to evoke that time when I would find myself in bedrooms, gardens, once even a compost heap, with boys I did not even know, let alone like or fancy. I needed to explain, if only to myself, why I had allowed myself to be ‘accidentally’ groped by a married stranger in a cinema, or to be driven into a lonely field by a former teacher, fanciable once, repellent now. But, as I wrote, I realised that naïveté was not the reason this kept happening to Marina, or to me. Most of the clever, gorgeous, feminist women I know were far more worldly than me as teenagers, yet they too experienced the same problem: we did not know what was allowed.
I don’t mean – I wish I did – that we weren’t sure what levels of orgiastic pleasure were acceptable in the young. Equally, I’m not referring to rape, or the assaults – verbal, physical, sexual – catalogued, thank God, on Jezebel.com or @EverydaySexism. No; I am talking about the murky hinterland between the sexes, between partial consent and subtle duress; the fact that not one of us, however strong, however lovely, knew we could say ‘no, I don’t want to’. We thought that, if we did, we’d never be kissed again, or we’d be called frigid; we believed that, when a boy unzipped his trousers, he would be physically harmed unless we did what he expected us to. Besides, didn’t letting them kiss us accidentally give them permission to do whatever they wanted?
For me, as it will for Marina, age has brought manifold happinesses, and the greatest of these is knowledge. My life is enhanced by the astounding fact that sex is wonderful, funny, impossible to do correctly, and never stops being rude. But, more importantly, I want my children, and everyone else’s, to know the self-hatred-avoiding basics: that vulvas and penises and breasts and thighs all look different; that being cool is an illusion; and that everyone thinks they are uniquely, hideously cursed. I also want them to understand this: that sex is not an obligation. You don’t have to snog the frog who sits next to you at a party, or grasp the sticky penis of some boy, or man, just because he unleashes it near your hand, whoever he is. Even if your body responds, you don’t have to do what anyone expects. There will be other chances, with people you actually fancy, some of whom may surprise you. And, best of all, one day you too will look around your children’s school playground and have the mind-blowingly hilarious realisation: every adult here has done it! Several times! Including me!