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  • Writer's pictureBob McBurney

Sex, American Retailing, Lord Snowdon’s Grandad

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

A couple of months ago, Sue and I were driving along the M62 towards the Pennines and Manchester airport. On the left we passed a shallow valley, sparsely populated with lonely stone farmhouses. On the right, rows of modern houses, closely packed together. The traffic was heavy and moving at speed. It seemed to me that the two communities were so divided by the hurtling steel strip of the motorway that the sort of communication that they might have enjoyed many years ago was now completely out of the question.

In an idle moment and rather wistfully, I imagined young lovers, divided by the road, standing either side of the traffic, blowing kisses to each other and holding up placards with promises of love ‘to be shared, when finally we can be together’.

Half a mile further on, Sue pointed out a foot bridge, but romanticism is not so easily dismissed and I had no wish to abandon my dream.

Later, on reflection, I realised that my imagined young people were, in reality, probably in their bedrooms, communicating through social media and enjoying the possibility of physical exposure to a degree that, as a young man, I could only dream about. In turn, this led me to think about some of the changes in sexual ‘norms’ that have happened in my lifetime.

It seems as if there has been an almost complete reversal of behaviour and expectations.

60 years ago, during normal social interaction, the body was hidden. A stray pubic hair seen against the whiteness of an inner thigh (usually while sitting opposite a girl on a low seat) could cause a boy (well, certainly this boy) almost unbearable excitement. Largely because of Hollywood films starring actors like Jane Russell (mean moody and magnificent, and probably wearing an aluminium bra) our ignorance was such that I and many of my friends, even as late teenagers, thought that breasts were uniformly conical and that gravity played no part in their presentation.

When sexual contact was made, it was invariably a fumble in the dark. One might say that touching was okay but exposure was definitely not. Today, probably because of sports kit and the physical beauty of athletes in general, much is exposed or covered in skin -tight clothing and touching is forbidden. The pendulum swings.

A few weeks ago, I ordered a used book, online, from an American company. It wasn’t expensive; something close to $10 including postage . I received the usual emails, acceptance of the order and notification of dispatch.

After the suggested delivery date had passed by 10 days, I contacted the company and asked if they could help because my attempts at tracking were not being successful and the book had not arrived. Within the hour I received a surprising response. The sender expressed regret that she could not track the delivery in UK, and as her company did not have another copy of the book to send to me she would reimburse me immediately with the full amount. She went on to say that she hoped the book would arrive eventually and if so, I should accept it as a gift.

In my book, I make no secret of the fact that I dislike President Trump. As a result of his presidency I know that I’ve begun to think of Americans, generally, in a less favourable light. The courtesy and efficiency shown by this book retailer reminded me of how easy it is (for me at least, and maybe for most of us) to accept lazy generalities, to blame an entire nation for the actions of a few. Hopefully our European neighbours will be mindful of this when relating to us, nationally and individually, in years to come.

The book which I’d ordered from America did eventually arrive. The book is titled ‘Snowdon, a photographic autobiography.

I’ve always loved his work. Accidents of birth undoubtedly helped his career, but he was incredibly inventive and creative. He describes his room at Eton which was full of electronic gadgets of his own invention. ‘The blackout curtains drew automatically when you opened the door’. Flashing lights wired to switches in the passage outside warned of possible unwanted intruders. He goes on to say that after his illness, he made a walking stick which contained a crystal set and a torch. With an aerial up his sleeve and his walking stick earthed to the ground he could listen to the Home Service through an earphone attached to his top hat! He even includes a photograph of a photographic enlarger which he made out of large tomato soup cans and scrap material because at the time, during the war, enlargers were expensive.

The book opens with a biography section and the very first chapter is about his grandfather Sir Robert Armstrong- Jones, who pioneered early research into mental health. The chapter goes on to say that he once cured a man who believed his actions were determined by an eel inside him, by operating on his stomach, then leaving a live eel in a basin by the patient’s bed.

This story, (too unlikely to be an invention), has fascinated me since I read it. Presumably an unnecessary incision had to be made on the patient’s stomach and then stitched. How unethical is that? Can one really say that the patient was cured when his imagined fear was proven to him as being correct by his surgeon?

I wonder how the patient progressed. It could be that without his eel he floundered. I need to know!

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