It occurred to me the other day that you know you’ve reached a certain age when you write a sex scene and you’re no longer worried about what your mother will think. No, now you’re worrying about what your children will think.
I’m know I’m not the only writer to find it difficult to write about sex. It’s not just the embarrassment factor – though there is that – it’s knowing how to get the tone right. Last week I watched GRACIE! on TV. I missed this the first time round. It’s the story of the singer Gracie Fields’ marriage to the Italian movie director, Monty Banks, and the dilemma she faced when he was threatened with internment in the Second World War. The extraordinary Jane Horrocks pulls off such a tour-de-force as Gracie that when I heard Gracie herself on YouTube I found her curiously unconvincing. Tom Hollander was magnificent as Monty Banks and there was real chemistry between them. When he tells her he’s in love with her and they kiss, they are at the door of his hotel room. He kisses her hand and draws her in. The door closes in the viewer’s face. In the next scene they are having breakfast in the dining room. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it works. It set me thinking about the way less sometimes really is more. In sex scenes – as in ghost stories and horror movies too – it’s usually best to leave quite a bit to the imagination. For my money one of the most erotic sentences in modern fiction comes in Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel, THE BEGINNING OF SPRING. It’s set in Russia in the 1910s. Frank has been deserted by his wife and has fallen in love with Lisa, who’s been employed to look after his children. When he declares himself they are interrupted and she slips away. Later he goes to look for her. ‘Frank went up the dark stairs to the back of the house and knocked at the door of Lisa’s room. He had not expected it to be locked, and it was not locked, but he waited until he heard her bare feet cross the wooden floor to open it.’ There’s a space and the next section begins ‘In the very early morning, they left for Shirokaya.’ That’s all, but in the context of the novel it’s electrifying.
What did Shelley write? ‘Heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are sweeter.’ I rather think he was right, and will you excuse me now while I go and look for my smelling salts . . .