A number of things recently have led to me thinking of all those things from early childhood that had some nebulous erotic appeal – even before puberty when, as the trashy novelists say, they provoked ‘stirrings’ or an ‘awareness’ that wasn’t there before.
#1: The Adventures of Wonk
Two books, one called The Secret, and the other Fireworks from series 417 of Ladybird Books. There were written by Muriel Levy, described in the blurb as ‘Auntie Muriel of radio fame’. They were lusciously illustrated by Kiddell-Munroe. First published in 1941 these two books were my mum’s when she was a child and were battered even when she was reading them to me. Now they are so damaged that they are too delicate even for a bookshelf and are wrapped in a brown envelope and stored away. Wonk is a walking, talking Koala Bear and has his adventures with his friend, Peter, the boy star of the books.
The illustrations were erotically charged. As a boy my own age, I guess, Peter was always depicted wearing shorts and a top which clung to him like lycra. His bare legs were curved into slightly stylised renditions of a boy’s musculature. ‘Pert’ only goes half-way to describing the condition of his backside. One picture in particular shows him as the imaginary hero of a book he is reading, tousled hair and stripped to the waist he is tying a bearded pirate to his own mast. Most of all though Peter and Wonk’s adventures were full of dark, enclosed spaces, the illustrations making shops, bedrooms, cupboards and even a nightwatchman’s hut look like entirely private spaces, warm and inviting, often softened by lamplight or moonlight into places of secrecy, privacy and intense hidden eroticism.
#2: Willard Price’s ‘Adventure’ Books
A while series of paperback books called ‘something Adventure; Amazon Adventure, Undersea Adventure, African Adventure and so on… The heros were Roger (14) and his older brother Hal (19) who travelled the world collecting live specimens of animals for their father who supplied zoos. This is unadulterated Boy’s Own stuff.
I find it almost impossible to pin down why these books so affected me and had such a gentle eroticism about them. They certainly depicted a relationship of brotherly love of which I knew no real version. Certainly the boys spent an inordinate amount of time in their swimming trunks and the cover art often depicted this. Beyond the adventure and the art work though I think I simply fell in love with them. If there was identification then it was with Roger – lucky to be the beloved and protected younger brother. The fact that in Undersea Adventure Hal and Roger are looked after by a Dr Dick and play with a killer whale called Big Boy, probably escaped me at the time!
#3: Bosch Paintings
Hours in the library’s art section revealed the mysterious world of Bosch’s paintings. In particular the Garden of Earthly Delights, with the fish head that ate and then shat a whole human being, the tiny figures bent double with flower stems or flutes protruding from their arses, the lizard creatures, fish and fox creatures, it was all a source of wonder and attraction.
This must have to do with masochistic tendencies in early life. I could equate penetrating flutes and flowers not with sex but with a kind of sordid, enjoyable/endurable pain. This was the same kind of pain/pleasure that came from the school bully twisting my arm behind my back. Maybe I picked up on the religious sensibility of the painting although I would not have been able to articulate that. These paintings are very much about ‘being done to’ rather than doing and, I think, about being small, physically and theologically. At that time, I was small, not for my age but simply as a child. I was skinny, bony, whippet-like, I was the willing victim of all that could be ‘done to’ someone – especially if they were naked.
#4: Nuban Tribesmen…
…Or more specifically, the photos of Nuban Tribesmen by Leni Reifenstahl and George Roger. These I found scattered throughout all kinds of photography compliations in the library and maybe also in old National Geographics. George Roger published Le Village des Noubas in 1955 and it is from this account of his journey through Kordofa that his pictures of Nuban warriors come. Reifenstahl visited the Nuba on numerous occasions between 1962 and 1969. The photographs most reproduced and the one’s I saw as a child focus on the Nuban wrestling sport which involved wearing razor-sharp cuffs on the wrists with which to cut the opponent’s head. The wrestlers were dusted all over with white wood ash which, in Reifenstahl’s colour photos, forms a strange ghostly sheen on otherwise very black skins. The most famous of these pictures is Roger’s photos of a victorious Nuban wrestler riding on the shoulders of another warrior.
On the most superficial level these photos remain erotic today. The wrestlers are all finely muscled specimens of humanity. As a child there were two overriding factors which made these pictures so significant to my sexual development. First, they were the first opportunity I had to look unashamedly at naked adults men; their adult cocks were a source of great fascination. Secondly, these pictures were the first I had ever seen of naked men in physical contact with one another. I remember looking at the picture of the wrestler on another’s shoulders and my overriding response being that his penis must be squashed against the back of the other man’s neck.
#5: The Water Babies
My copy of the Rev’d Charles Kingsley’s book was illustrated by Tom Kerr. It was from the Golden Galley Series of Junior Classics in 1948. The illustrations were black and white line drawings scattered throughout the text.
The drawings, of course, show Tom the chimney-sweep naked as he is described in the text but something of the freedom of skinny-dipping, the dream quality of being able to breathe underwater and the magical nature of the transformation all combined to produce that strange thrilling sensation which would, in later life, transform like Tom into a full-blown, naked sensation named sex.
#6: Kidnap Stories
Any stories in which the young male protagonist was kidnapped, abducted, tied, bound/gagged… Most notably The Return to Witch Mountain, a book of the film (I have never seen the film) in which Tony is kidnapped with his sister and strapped to a gurney whilst medical experiments are conducted on him to try and unravel the secret of his telepathic gift.
Again we are back to my childhood masochism. In the book there are some pages of stills from the film, in full colour. Tony is there, strapped to the gurney, electrodes stuck to his chest, his head held by a thick canvas strap and stainless steel buckles holding him down. That was the place I wanted to be. Since childhood I have made discreet enquiries of a number of male friends both straight and gay and discovered that this kidnap fantasy I by no means rare and I suppose this is reflected in the number of children’s books with boy-kidnap as a theme of a part of the plot.
What is interesting to me and which I do not yet have an answer is why did my sexual positioning change? So much of these early sexual/sensual fantasies had to do with a kind of masochism and yet I have lost nearly all of that and would now identify firmly, if not with the sadist exactly, then with the one ‘doing to’ rather than the one being ‘done to’. Obviously, in this switch I am ‘doing to’ a fantasy or a real partner who in some way represents myself but as to why – I have yet to unravel that mystery.