July 10, 2016

Why the Cuddling Had to Stop (Manchester Guardian, April ’65)

One pub down the road – not the one that won’t serve West Indians – won’t serve boys and girls who obviously like one another. Dan and Laurie were thrown out because they put their arm round their girl friends. “I’m not having any of that! Get out of here!” shouted the enraged proprietor. And apparently not one eyebrow was raised to mourn their passing.

I said at the time that if they would collect some friends – boys and girls – and meet me at the pub they could all put their arms round each other en masse, and I would write down what happened. They agreed enthusiastically, but half an hour later phoned me to say that they were on the way to the pub – about twenty of them – when they discovered the girls were all under age. I had to advise them to go home.

About the same time, two friends of ours, librarians, who had recently married, went after a job. The job was for Bill, who had all the qualifications asked for. He and Lorna were waiting in the corridor, holding hands, when a scandalised public servant confronted them and said through clenched teeth,

“We do not allow cuddling here!”

Venom, nightmares, and sweat, writhed darkly in that word “cuddling.” Bill nearly hit him. Ten minutes later Bill was interviewed – to his horror by this same gentleman – and was informed that although he was the only applicant with the necessary qualifications, it had been decided that the vacancy would remain unfilled.

All the world loves a lover – except the English. Any manifestation of friendship – which current sociology calls with distaste “pairing” – whether homosexual or heterosexual, whether in middle, adolescent, or nursery age, calls out tense watchfulness.

I suppose that is why the English dislike children so much. They have a suspicion that, even within marriage, the children may have resulted from love of one human being for another.

During the last war, when flats throughout London were empty, I phoned an agent, the last of my list of a dozen. The first thing he said, like the other eleven, was “Have you any children?” Swallowing desperately, I said “No” – lying, of course. I had some wild idea I could smuggle them in at dead of night. “Well,” he answered, probably wrinkling his nose at the other end of the phone as if something smelled bad, “you sound to me young enough to have some,” and rang off.

Certainly English people seem to prefer cats, or dogs, who rarely embarrass their owner by showing concern for their own species, and whose mating can be achieved with a sort of hearty clinicalness. I have watched, with my spine pricking, miniature poodle dogs lying on their backs, cradled in women’s arms. I have heard a man, wound round a lamp-post with a small dog on a blue evening, pleading “Do it for Daddy then!” And I myself would have been inclined to call these things perversions, or at least symptoms of something wrong.

Back in the nineteen-forties I went to work one morning, shocked by the day’s news. The room was full of horrified, distressed people. “Hundreds dead… Bodies lying in the streets…”

“Oh,” I said, weary with tragedy, “you’re talking about Stalingrad.”

“Stalingrad? What’s that?” They were blank. “It’s cat flu.”

Many of these people had little hooks in their rooms where they hung their cats’ face-cloths, prettily embroidered with their names. They could never stay half an hour late work on radio sets for the Navy, because their cats would be worried if they were not home on time.

I then had two babies’ priority ration-books, on which I rarely managed to obtain anything, but they got liver, rabbit, eggs – everything that I was supposed to get, but that I was told was unobtainable – quite regularly for their cats. They were surprised at my anger. “How can you expect a cat to understand there’s a war on?” they gently chided me.

And then I found that they had bribed the butcher and the grocer, that they had paid double the price, that they stood for two hours in the drenching rain or the petrifying cold. Their definite sincerity, their eager self-sacrifice, genuinely disturbed me. And I found myself wondering – for I see other people’s point of view to a sometimes alarming extent – “Why should I assume, just because I am human, that children have a right to be cared for?”

©Leila Berg
published in The Manchester Guardian, ?/4/65