Jenny Diski

There’s a joke going round on Twitter that ‘they are arresting the Seventies.’ The ‘Seventies’ they are arresting is the decade rather than the mean age of those being rounded up by Operation Yewtree, though 73-year-old Jimmy Tarbuck is the latest entertainer from the period known to have been questioned about historical sex abuse allegations. Max Clifford, himself arrested for the same alleged offence, has said that there are many famous older men living in fear of an early-morning visit from the police. We seem to have come rather belatedly to the idea that being on TV, famous, rich, or any combination of the three, conferred on some men a sense of sexual entitlement. Girl fans in their teens (groupies, in the language of rock) were excitedly vulnerable to the charms of fame and what came with it, and the men – who, as John Peel (not obviously an abusive monster) said, ‘didn’t ask for ID’ – took their tribute in sexual encounters without concerning themselves with the age of those they were exploiting.

Another tweet caught my attention, in the timeline of @EverydaySexism, an account that is really distressing in its witnessing of the enormous volume of physical and verbal abuse women still receive. A young woman described a stranger making a sleazy and crude sexual comment to her in the street. ‘I was 18,’ she added as a final insult, ‘and he was in his thirties.’ There is no way to reconcile her very contemporary assumptions with the assumptions I made, and the wishes I had, as a young woman in the 1960s. In my form of teenage fandom, the objects of desire were different.

It was brains I was after. I had no interest in looks, popular fame or money. From the age of 13 or so it was clear to me that I needed a mature, sophisticated lover, a writer, artist, journalist or politico. I daydreamed coups de foudre, epiphanic meetings with the writers whose books I was reading and encounters with nameless, imaginary artists and philosophers. No businessmen, comedians or rock stars. I wanted wisdom and sexual finesse. I had no upper age limit, although in those days the oldest man in my life was in his fifties. My lower limit was quite specific: no one under thirty. My interest simply died when someone revealed himself to be 28 or 29.

There were, if you insist on them, reasons that added up easily, for anyone with psychoanalytic smarts, to a highly sexualised, emotionally confused young girl. When I was 17, my foster mother told me that young women with father complexes were two a penny but that I was the only one she’d met with a grandfather complex. Not least of the reasons was my compulsive and professionally seductive father, who included me in his spellbinding. Then as a particularly unknowing or unconscious 11-year-old, I had a frightening and, to me, namelessly threatening encounter with a young rabbi, who isolated me in his sister’s house one summer holiday under the guise of giving my mother a break from her stressful life. I knew he liked me being funny and smart and I played up to that, enjoying the attention and a power I was quite unable to define. I was alert and uneasy about the way he looked at me, although I couldn’t identify it until the day he crossed the room on his knees – I’d moved to another chair when I thought he was sitting too close – and begged me to kiss him. I wriggled out of the way and locked myself in my bedroom, panic-stricken, waiting for his sister to return from a trip he’d said I’d best not go on, being slightly ill. I said nothing.

The following day he had to drive me back to my mother, but stopped suddenly in a lay-by, switched the engine off and turned to me. Not knowing what he was going to do, I was as scared as I’d ever been. He said: ‘I hope what happened yesterday hasn’t made you feel differently about our religion.’ With immense relief that I can still feel, I said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t know what you mean,’ and, reassured, he started up the car and drove on. It was months before I got up the courage to tell my mother I didn’t like having him around, even though he was, according to her, our charitable champion, and explain what he had done. I expected to be shouted at, told off. I felt guilty, just as children are supposed to feel when implicated in adult sexuality. In fact, she smiled and pointed out that in only a few years I would be able to marry, and a rabbi would make a good husband (I think she meant son-in-law). My randy rabbi was probably in his late twenties, far too young for me by the time I got to my teens. Aside from that, by 15 my only overtly sexual experience consisted of being raped at the age of 14, as I’ve written about in this paper.[*] There was also one adored, rather standoffish boyfriend (19 and a cub reporter on a local paper, as near as I could get to literary sophistication) with whom I didn’t have sex. I dare say all that explains my dedicated search for the perfect older man. But it was books that seemed to me to be at the root of it.

It almost certainly began before such men were easily available to me. When I was 13, I read Lolita. Humbert didn’t terrify me. While I was surprised and delighted by the puzzle and wit of the novel, I also felt resentful not to have a companion as clever and funny as Humbert. I was jealous of Lolita, and thought her idiotic not to appreciate such a smart, devoted and sophisticated consort. There is very little sex in the novel. It was the fevered, articulate seduction that I found so desirable. It wasn’t that I hankered after sex with older men; I wasn’t very interested in sex as such. And good looks were of no importance. Sometimes, indeed, I found handsome boyfriends rather irritating. I really imagined what most people would think of as ugly, flabby men as my ideal companions. I considered the aged, overweight body an indication of a fine mind. Minds were what turned me on, what they knew, how they knew it and how they could pass it on to me, so the bodies that belonged to them were desirable, no matter how much they failed to conform to notions of beauty. I fantasised the post-coital conversation as a kind of seminar: knowledge, wisdom, lists of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, philosophy explained, as I lay in his arms, having in passing been instructed in the sexual arts (although my sense of the coital bit was always nebulous) or what in those days was referred to as being ‘good in bed’ – then an essential skill for the well-rounded intellectual that I planned to be. I was avid for learning, and learning, I had decided, came from older men, preferably of an urbane, literary and very often alcoholic sort.

And as luck would have it, at 15, in 1963, I ended up in the house of a writer, a woman, who took me in when I was stuck in limbo while the authorities tried to keep me away from both my mother and my father. I stayed very quiet for months, listening, frightened of not knowing enough or making mistakes, getting up to speed with the bookish, psychology-saturated, intellectual world that I’d previously had contact with only in fantasy. Once I had lunch with a writer friend of my foster mother, along with five or six visiting Russians and Robert Graves. Graves of the halo of curly white hair, not at all good looking, fat and pasty, in his late sixties or early seventies. I sat at the table opposite him in awed silence, gazing, longing for him to speak to me, not daring to say anything for fear I’d say something stupid, crushed that he didn’t throw a single word in my direction the entire meal. Later, he asked his host: ‘Who was that interesting Russian girl who didn’t speak any English?’ I met Henry Williamson by chance at another friend’s house just as he was about to leave. He stayed to tell me about his friend T.E. Lawrence being killed as he was on his way to head up the British Union of Fascists, and then said, as he hurried to catch his train: ‘You are a swallow among the starlings, my dear.’ I melted at the old man’s perfectly judged compliment, and let the fascism drift over my head (was it like that for Unity with Hitler?). I went to Ted Hughes’s house during a weekend of teenage angst and talked late into the night about dreams and destiny. He told me at 3 a.m., to my dismay (though you might say, looking back, my good fortune), that I was too young and therefore taboo and we had to go separately to bed. I failed to bag those three, but not many turned down what I thought of as my opportunity. My painter boyfriend, in his thirties, loved taking me to school while I was studying for my O levels. He regretted that I didn’t wear uniform. My fellow pupils were going out with each other. It never crossed my mind that I might have a boyfriend who was my own age. Why, I wondered, when those in loco parentis suggested it, would I go out with someone who had no more (and by then much less) experience than I had? What would be the point? There was a point in seeking out and making myself available to older men, just as there was a point for young fans of the entertainers and rock stars of the time, in getting close to them. The points, the illusions, were different in kind, not in intention.

While I had something other than fun during that period, fun was never what I was after. I imagine it was a bruising brief encounter for some of the men, while for others it would have been a stroke of semi-illicit good fortune that they thought no more about, but for me it always ended with my surprised disappointment. At 18, when I was in a psychiatric hospital with the inevitable depression, I bonded fiercely with the middle-aged alcoholic son of a Georgian poet, who turned all the more dedicatedly to drink faced with my ferocious demands. I made plans to leave the hospital and share a flat with an amnesiac man in his forties who turned out to have a wife and a daughter older than I was. When the hospital finally found out who he was and his family came to visit him, he discovered that he liked them very much, even if he didn’t remember them. I recall feeling bitterly betrayed as he came to some of his senses and gently explained to me that he was going to go home and try to live his own life.

For all that I thought myself seduced, and longed to be, by knowing, clever older men, I positively offered myself to anyone who fitted my template. It must have been very difficult for some, as well as flattering, to be one of those men I sought out in the French Pub, jazz clubs, or at the dinner tables or parties of my foster mother or her friends. I was certainly a lethal if not, after the first year or so, an illegal temptation, and not a passive one. My quest was dedicated and entirely self-regarding. I don’t think I ever thought about the desired men themselves as individuals with their own lives, only as emblems for something I needed and believed I could get from them. I made it hard for them to refuse. I didn’t, of course, force men to become my lover, just as no one ever forces anyone to become an abuser, but I did confront them and require them to take a decision to get involved with me or not. I often got what I wanted, because as with the entertainers of the time, who probably weren’t all as psychotically predatory as Savile, men are not generally very practised at turning down sexual invitations, however ill-advised. It annoyed me no end when men behaved responsibly towards me and others in their lives, but there were those who did, as well those who chose not to. The recent outraged statements denying sexual exploitation from the elderly men questioned by the police in Operation Yewtree suggest they had, and still have, as little understanding of the nature and requirements of maturity and responsibility as I once did.