Showing your knickers in public

 When I was about eight a girl in my class, Michelle, took the opportunity to jump up on the table, lift her skirt and show her bright red knickers to a rapt audience.  When the teacher, who’d momentarily left the room, re-appeared our faces were as red as Michelle’s knickers.  I told my mum when I got home and she said, “Hmmm – she’s always been a show-off.” Showing-off was about as bad as it got in my mum’s eyes. I have never forgotten the scorn etched on her face when she said the word “show-off” as if it was the first step to prostitution.  But when I became a teenager I discovered that showing-off meant pretty much anything that didn’t follow the pattern that everyone else followed in the family and that meant reading.  To read was to be idle, to put yourself above everyone else, to say publicly that you had an inner life that needed nourishment.  It was the worst kind of showing-off was there was and so I had to do it in secret. I still haven’t lost, although I have spent the last thirty five years trying, the guilt involved in sitting down and reading.  It’s something I do only when everything else has been done, hardly auspicious for enjoying and retaining words.  I think it’s with me forever now, along with guilt about escaping for long solitary walks, my increasingly frequent gazing at beautiful young men and an addiction to swimming.  But I think now that perhaps that a bite of guilt might add to the satisfaction and not sour it. Books giving me guilty pleasure at the moment are Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’, ‘The Goshawk’ by T.H White and ‘The Haunt of the Black Masseur’ by Charles Sprawson, sadly not quite as louche as it sounds but an account of the history of wild water swimming.  

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