Losing It, Edited by Keith Gray

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The Independent Culture

The erotic sculptor Eric Gill described his transition from child to adulthood as a process that "suddenly transformed a mere water tap into a pillar of fire." The eight contributors of short stories to this anthology on the topic of losing virginity keep well away from this level of priapic joy. A few still tend instead to emphasise associated shame and guilt. The young Welsh officer in the First World War who, after visiting a notoriously diseased brothel in Rouen, told a disapproving Robert Graves that "I never knew before what a wonderful thing sex is" might find it strange that his better protected successors seem on occasions to be making heavier weather of such early experiences.

The best contributions come from Melvin Burgess and Anne Fine, two children's literary heavyweights who some years ago were involved in a spat about what type of sexual language is suitable in books for young people. But they perfectly complement each other in these pages. Burgess returns to his theme of problems arising when first sex is accompanied by age differences.

In his story, 15-year-old Brian manages to bed the school beauty Samantha Harding after dazzling her with poetry. What followed was "the best day of my life by about ten thousand miles". But 17-year-old Samantha is furious when her lover reveals his true age. Brian agrees to tell everyone that it was all a fantasy. He becomes a standing joke, losing friends. Even so, his last line is still touchingly triumphant: "But Wow. It was still worth it."

Anne Fine describes a lesson in Personal and Social Development, colloquially known as the Sex and Drugs session, taken by Mrs Abbot, an experienced, world-weary teacher. So out once again come the condoms and the practice bananas as Year 10 gets down to all the usual wise-cracking and nervous laughter. But half way through she starts remembering her own terror at this age of becoming pregnant and the pain she experienced during first sex. She is glad that Year 10 can be jolly about an activity she had once found so difficult, and sure that her pupils have more of a chance than she ever did to discover the true sexual fulfillment that had taken her so long.

Other contributors are almost as good. Jenny Valentine describes a wonderful-terrible Sunday lunch where 73-year-old Dora talks loudly and fondly about sex despite every attempt to shut her up. Keith Gray provides a teasing story about a boy who can't decide between the promise of a revelatory session with his girlfriend or keeping his oath to stay pure until after a vital soccer match. Sophie McKenzie issues a sensible warning about giving in to a boy. But other contributors take a darker tone. Mary Hooper describes how a Victorian teenager is forced into sex to pay for food for her family and Bali Rai describes the dreadful fate of a Punjabi bride falsely accused of not being a virgin.

Adolescents apparently dislike their own parents talking to them about sex. Nor do they always welcome teachers' efforts. The temptation to turn to easily-accessible pornography to find out more is therefore great. This book is an attempt to show that teenage literature, hitherto often somewhat evasive, can also play a useful role when it comes to imparting felt knowledge rather than surface knowingness. Editor, authors and publisher all deserve congratulations.

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