Keeping Mum

23 02 2009

[You can listen to this episode here.]

Thankfully I have managed to reach the age of maturity without ever having to endure that particular conversation, familiar I think to the majority of the population, that starts “Son, sit down – I want to talk to you about sex.”


It has always struck me that we leave instruction in the subject of sex to the most inappropriate people. Neither our parents, nor our teachers, are ever likely to become inspiring sexual role models. As a result, the whole process is made excruciatingly awkward for all involved.


I happened to find myself in York’s Sexual Health Clinic recently. It is probably not appropriate for me to broadcast to you my exact reasons for being there, but I can reassure any suddenly anxious listeners that there is nothing to worry about.


If you ever get a chance to visit a sexual health clinic, do take the opportunity. The whole setup is almost built for a slightly cheeky sense of humour, and I get the impression that those who work there must have quite a giggle behind the counter.


Sitting in the waiting room (the clinic is managed on a drop-in basis so depending on the previous night’s activity you may have quite a wait) there are only two kinds of visitor. One sits nervously, fidgeting and pretending to watch the badly tuned television in the corner. Clearly they are acutely concerned by the possibility of bumping into somebody they know, and their hesitant lip movements suggest they are already rehearsing their excuses.


The other kind is more relaxed… unnervingly so. They know the staff by name, and the staff, of course, know them. The clinic, it would seem, is a second home to them and more of a chance to catch up with old friends than a distressing ordeal.


I have to say that to me neither of these attitudes are particularly attractive. My sympathies lie to some degree with those that believe sex is something that should remain private, and treated with discretion. It should not be worn as openly as on the sleeve. But at the same time I am deeply frustrated by those that feel we should be ashamed of sex – that it is something to be embarrassed about.


Speaking to one of the doctors at the clinic, it turns out that most of the issues she deals with would be vastly more straightforward if they could be treated by the patient as any other medical ailment.


Well, I have no idea how we go about combating the taboo of sexual health and activity. But I do know, perhaps like many things, that it is tremendously refreshing to speak frankly and without coded metaphor about something usually forbidden.


Do it – if only for the satisfaction of seeing the look of horror in the face of your audience.



One of the peculiar aspects of our culture is that sex is considered a great taboo about which we must not speak, but so often do. While on the other hand we so rarely talk about death. There have been several attempts to remove the cloak of awkwardness surrounding death, by broadcasting death itself on television. Aside from producing a great number of newspaper column inches these have, ultimately, made little progress.


There is one story, however, which has always been on television and in newspapers. The story of Jade Goody could not properly end anywhere else. It began in two thousand and two, when the dental nurse from Bermondsey found herself walking into the Big Brother house.


Her ignorance, vulgarity and yobbishness captured the attention, and the criticism, of newspapers, housemates and, of course, the housewives of the Cotswolds. Even though she never won the competition, she became Big Brother’s most celebrated celebrity. How many other names, I wonder, can you recall from that third series of the programme?


Well the story did not stop there. Jade became a celebrity in her own right – giving interviews, presenting her own reality shows, holding a regular spot in the Daily Mail’s gossip column. The attraction was twofold. On one level the Jade Goody myth gave great satisfaction to the snob in all of us. Providing many a topic of conversation at coffee mornings, she was a reflection of the very worst of society. Ultimately she made us all, in a regrettably British way, feel slightly superior.


On the other hand Jade became a role model. To those who weren’t very clever, had never done well in school, who had some mind-numbing job, who found that having children was the only way to give their life meaning. Well, to those people Jade was a hero. She had made something out of nothing. She was living the high life. It might not have been very classy, but she had the glamour, the excitement and through it all she retained something they identified with – she was Jade Goody, not embarrassed to be who she was, answerable to nobody, with no agenda save to enjoy life to the full.


Now we come to an episode in the Jade Odyssey which, I must confess I would much rather leave out. However, it is a most crucial link in the story. Because it was the racism and bullying Jade directed towards the ever-graceful and magnanimous Shilpa Shetty, on Celebrity Big Brother 2007, which took her to India. She was appearing on the Indian equivalent programme, in an attempt to make her peace with that country’s audience. When, for once, a key moment in Jade’s life went unbroadcast. She was taken aside and given a most sobering piece of news – cancer.




Until this point I have spoken of Jade in the past tense. At this moment that I am speaking she is not yet dead. In fact this afternoon she becomes Mrs Jade Tweed. But of course the Jade Goody we have all known, criticised, adored, perhaps even abused, has gone.


Today Jade Goody is no longer a dirty word. Her marriage has even had the blessing of the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, who holds the most ancient office in the land, and who relaxed her husband’s bail arrangements so that the couple might spend their wedding night together.


Whenever a public figure is diagnosed with a fatal illness such as cancer, the microphones and cameras are discreetly withdrawn. The next we hear is the carefully prepared obituary and glowing tributes to ‘a good friend.’ But that is not how Jade Goody has chosen to die.


She has invited the television cameras, and by extension the whole country, not only to her bitter-sweet wedding this afternoon, but also to the very moment of her death. In a society that so rarely talks about death, this is a brave thing to do. But it is also a good thing.


The relevant charities have reported a thirty percent increase in the numbers of women asking for smear tests. They say it is entirely due to the publicity Jade Goody has given to the disease.


Even more, the woman who was to surprisingly many a role model in life, now becomes a role model in her death. It is so rare for us to be able to see a woman look death straight in the eye and face the end with such confidence.


Many people have asked what Jade’s motivation is for documenting her painful demise so publicly. Well, I suspect all this has nothing to do with it. Interviewed a few weeks ago Jade explained her thinking in characteristically frank manner:


“I’ve lived in front of the cameras. And maybe I’ll die in front of them. And I know some people don’t like what I’m doing but at this point I really don’t care what other people think. Now, it’s about what I want.”


And what does she want? She wants to give her two boys something she never had – an education. She doesn’t want anybody to laugh at them for thinking East Anglia is a foreign country.


Our parents may not be best placed to teach us about sex, but Jade Goody is teaching her boys to identify what is important in life, and to go after it regardless of what the chattering classes think. What a magnificent lesson to give your children.




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