Rod Liddle recalls his own childhood fumblings and says that the case of Alfie Patten proves nothing much has changed. If Britain is ‘broken’, it always was
I still sometimes wonder what would have happened if Julie’s parents had somehow stumbled in. Or mine, for that matter. They would have had to peer pretty hard, the lights being so low. Probably their annoyance would have focused first, as so often, on the music: ‘Turn that bloody row off!’ A confected teen-pap trio called the Arrows, if I remember rightly, emanating from a Dansette, grinding out their only real hit: ‘I wanna touch too much of your sweet sweet loving...’ Well, yes indeed, precisely. Then, with growing alarm, the parents would have noticed the empty cider bottles, the heaps of discarded clothing and finally maybe the intertwined bodies; four of them — two on the bed, two on the floor. Total cumulative age of intertwined bodies: 50 years.
‘Do you know what this is?’ her dad, a strict blue-collar Roman Catholic, would have said, shaking his head, to my dad, a devout blue-collar Methodist. ‘It’s Broken Britain. That’s what it is. Broken Britain.’ And then we’d all have received a bloody good ‘twatting’ — more for the drink in my case, more for the sex in hers. This is a guess, of course. They might have sent us to counselling, I suppose, but, you know, I doubt that.
The parents didn’t stumble in, of course, luckily. They absented themselves for the evening so that the party — one of four or five in that bright early spring of 1973 — could go ahead unhindered. So I blame the parents. What did they think we were going to do all evening? Play Scrabble? Nah; this new game of ours was far more exciting than a double word score. Did we take any precautions? Yes, of course — do you think we were stupid? We jammed a chair up against the bedroom door. Oh, you mean contraception? The mere suggestion is beyond comprehension.
At school, a northern comprehensive, the following Monday a horrible rumour went around, which frankly terrified me. Brooksy, my best friend and the other bloke in that bedroom on Saturday night — tough as hell, trainee bovver-boy (remember them?) with a wicked sense of humour and a decent heart who four years later would be killed, shockingly, by driving his motorbike into a lamp-post — said that at the end of every year the school nurse lined all the boys up and made them take out their willies. She then applied a strip of litmus paper to the tip of every member and if it went green you got expelled, because it meant you’d had illegal sexual intercourse. I believed that utterly. We’d learned about litmus paper in science class a little earlier that school year — weird stuff. I was three weeks away from my 13th birthday, an event which would be marked by presents — a Mott the Hoople single (‘Honaloochie Boogie’, since you asked), a book from the TV series Colditz — another party and more jubilant sexual intercourse, this time with a similarly accommodating girl called Lynne. Happy days.
So, Alfie Patten, aged 13 and a half, (possibly) proud father of little Maisie, and scourge of the national newspapers today, I say to you: what took you so long, son, for God’s sake? Thirteen? I’d almost given up on sex by 13, it seemed passé.
I wonder if there has ever been a time when 13-year-old children, usually from a working-class background but not exclusively so, did not have sexual intercourse. I can’t have been the first and quite clearly I was not the last. In general the age at which people first have children has increased quite dramatically over the last thousand or so years. When I look at the case of Alfie, I am not sure what it is about which people are so outraged, unless it is his parents, who seem fabulously stupid and feckless to an almost heroic level. If his girlfriend, Chantelle, had done what most young teenagers do when they find themselves up the duff, and popped down to the abortion clinic, the story would never have been heard about and nor would it have been even vaguely remarkable, simply par for the course. In a way, the remarkable thing was that they didn’t go for a termination, this being the contraceptive of choice for young people these days. Is this what has annoyed the moralists, that they had the kid? Even more remarkably, several more young men came forward to claim parentage of Maisie; frankly, I’d have kept my head down, no matter how much money was being waved at them by the tabloids, all desperate to find a daddy younger and more apparently careless than the first.
Broken Britain: what a cheap and witless soubriquet. Nothing, really, has changed with teenagers. It is true that Britain has a worse rate of teenage pregnancy than many countries in Europe. My suspicion is that this is because we are betwixt and between, neither fish nor foul. Those with the best records are Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. In the first two, the church has not yet retreated fully from daily life and the concept of stigma still exists; in the last, there is sort of compulsory sex education and liberalism from almost the moment a child is born. We have long since dispensed with the church as an effective agent of social control but not yet reached the liberal nirvana of the Netherlands: give us time. High levels of both poverty and immigration may well be associative factors which make Britain worse than most of the rest. It is another issue where both Right and Left are, at one time or another, right and wrong but cannot bear to admit the rectitude of the opposing argument.
I suppose it is just luck that prevented my earliest coupling being rewarded with a pregnancy; it certainly wasn’t good judgment. But none of the girls from back then were conspicuously harmed by their experiences of casual sex at an early age; all are fine right now. Indeed, I spoke to Julie not so long ago, through the conduit of Friends Reunited, or Shags Reignited as it might be better known. She’s done very well for herself. Politely admitted she hadn’t been terribly impressed back then in the bedroom, with the Arrows playing in the background. It was, she said, if we’re honest, crap.